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Half-mil and early exemption request

PoliticsHalf-mil and early exemption request

Document showing payments to Courtenay Coye LLP and Douglas Mendez SC which together amounted to roughly half a million dollars were sent to the chairman of the UDP, Michael Peyrefitte, who said that the premature request for exemption by Courtenay and Coye shows an intention to receive huge payouts from government coffers. Courtenay says it’s a matter of routine. 

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. June 16, 2022

The government of Belize has sent an official response to Senator Michael Peyrefitte, who made two requests under the Freedom of Information Act last Friday for documents indicating the amounts paid to the Courtenay Coye LLP law firm for legal representation it has provided to GoB. Attached to the letter from the Office of the Prime Minister are documents showing the exemption letters granted to the senior members of Courtenay Coye LLP by then Governor-General Sir Colville Young, after Senator Coye, the Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance, and Senator Eamon Courtenay, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Immigration, asked that the firm be given leave to be hired by the government without their having to vacate their seats within the Senate. (Senator Chris Coye is the founding partner of the firm, and Senator Courtenay is the managing partner.

Peyrefitte is thus claiming that the letters, which according to Peyrefitte were sent to the Governor General just 5 weeks after the PUP victory in the 2020 general election, purportedly show that the individuals went into government with the intention that their law firm would be retained for its legal services.

“The 18th of December 2020, five weeks after the general elections, the ink barely dry pan the oath weh they sign fi be minister, senator and prime minister, and this is what Senator Courtenay wrote to the Governor-General. Now, remember, this is the 18th of December 2020, you know. There are no cases against the government by nobody; nobody nuh di sue they…so you know, a little bit more than 30 days after being elected, Senator Courtenay wrote to the Governor-General Young this letter: ‘I am the senior partner in the firm of Courtenay Coye’s LLP, attorney-at-law. I am also a senator appointed by Your Excellency….I am not aware that the firm is currently party to any contract with the government; however, it is likely that Courtenay Coye LLP will be engaged by the government from time to time to advise it on the sensitive legal matters when it is deemed appropriate.’ This letter indicates clearly, ladies and gentlemen, that these people came into government with a plan!” Peyrefitte said at a UDP press conference on Tuesday.

Yesterday, Senator Courtenay, in his remarks during a press conference hosted by the PUP, dismissed Peyrefitte’s claims and referred to the exemption letter as merely a matter of routine.

“Every time I am appointed to the Senate, I write that letter to the Governor-General, and I get a response, every single time, cause I don’t know whenever somebody…There are nine lawyers in that firm. Somebody calls them, they get business, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, so I write that letter to make sure I am covered in the event that my firm is asked to do any work. It’s as simple as that, nothing more complicated or secret,” Courtenay said.

Peyrefitte said that a similar letter was penned for the founding partner of the law firm, Hon. Chris Coye. He noted that the letter specifically highlighted the need for an urgent response to the request outlined in the document.

“These people know that when they were coming in, they were leaving their law firms and had to make sure that they secured employment for their firm with the government. That is plain to be seen. It’s not like something happened and then they reached out to them and say, ‘bwai, we have to plug you in fi dis’.  No, man, before anything happen, we done wa get permission…The letter for Senator Coye, they cut and paste it, yo know. The only with the letter da this: Eamon says ‘I am a senior partner’; Chris Coye says,’I am a founding partner’,” Peyrefitte said.

During his remarks at a press conference held by the Prime Minister yesterday, Minister Courtenay explained the reasons for hiring legal representatives from outside the public service but maintained that the crown counsels in the Attorney General’s ministry are the utmost legal professionals.

“What we have here are examples, not all, some of the cases that is dealing with things on which they had advised under the UDP. It is very difficult to go back to any professional—‘now that the tables have turned, I want you advise on the same thing’. Secondly, some of these issues are politically sensitive, and you, just for obvious reasons, don’t go to somewhere whether by design or accident, information goes out. You have to deal with things in a way that is practical. I would not go to a law firm where my opponent has somebody in there who is working there and they have a loyalty to somebody I’m against. What is the point I am making? There are people in the Attorney General’s ministry, like every single ministry in Belize, who have connections direct and otherwise to the previous administration. I am not questioning the loyalty or competence of any of the crowns, but it is uncomfortable for them. That’s the point, because the minute something leaks, you point on somebody if these issues are politically sensitive… The long and short of it is this, in the government service, there are frequently times when you have to outsource, or you choose to outsource all kinds of services…,” Courtenay said.

The letter from the Office of the Prime Minister to Peyrefitte shows that up to June 10, 2022, $277,842.50 was paid to Courtenay Coye LLP and $224,745.73 to Douglas Mendez SC, a Trinidadian senior counsel, in legal fees. The letter states, “Some of these engagements are ongoing court matters which will require further legal work to be performed. The additional work to be done cannot yet be determined.”

The letter goes on to make a shocking claim that law firms owned either by former Prime Minister Dean Barrow or members of his family collected tens of millions of dollars from the government as payment for legal services they provided during the previous Barrow administration.

The letter sent out from the Office of the Prime Minister alleges, “In total, the Barrow family of law firms received over $30,000,000.00 ($30 million) in taxpayer dollars from the Government of Belize, of which over $20,000,000.000 ($20 million) was for legal fees.”

The letter also claims that the former prime minister’s law firm secured payments from the UDP government “to his firm’s clients for land acquisition by the Government.”

It then went on to point to a need for further enquiry in order to arrive at a more complete assessment of the amount paid to the law firms owned by members of the Barrow family. “It would surely be in the public interest to ascertain what additional amounts, over and above this $30 million, the Barrow family of law firms were paid by statutory bodies and government-owned entities like BTL, BEL, BWSL, the Social Security Board and the Central Bank of Belize,” the letter from the Prime Minister’s office stated.

“In the interest of transparency and accountability, I would expect that these institutions might find it in the interest of the respective entities and the public interest that such information should also be disclosed in due course,” the Prime Minister’s letter went on to say.

At the UDP’s press conference, Peyrefitte implied that the statements in the letter had set the stage for what he said would be a slam dunk defamation case—although there have been no indications by Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow or any of his family members of any intention to bring a lawsuit against the government to challenge the contents of Prime Minister Briceño’s letter.

“This man is saying in writing that the Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow steered clients to his law firm and while he is the head of a UDP government made sure that his law firm and their clients benefitted from the government. Really? I mean, really….If there was ever a slam dunk defamation case—you really would put that in a letter? Mean this person is mad. Not true!” Peyrefitte said.

The letter from the Office of the Prime Minister claims that Barrow and Co., the law firm owned by former PM Barrow’s brother, Denys Barrow, received $20 million in payment from the government of Belize, $14 million of which was for legal fees. Peyrefitte argued, however, that Andrew Marshalleck, who is believed to be closely affiliated with the PUP government, has been the face of that company for the past 10 years.

He added, “Let’s be frank: the face of the Barrow and Company law firm for the better part of the last decade is none other than Andrew Marshalleck, who was the chairman of the PUP commission of inquiry early into their term and the quintessential PUP insider… ”

Peyrefitte went on to insist that during his, Peyrefitte’s, term as attorney general, Trinidadian senior counsel Douglas Mendez’s legal services were never retained, despite the assertion in the letter from PM Briceño that he also worked under the UDP’s administrations.

Prime Minister Briceño has said, however, that the information they received indicated that SC Mendez was indeed retained by the previous UDP government, and in reference to Senator Peyrefitte’s allusions to a possible defamation lawsuit, he said, “They are taking out endless lawsuits against the government, so it’s just going to another one, should they decide they want to do that, but I’m not sure they want to go down that road.”

Notably, Peyrefitte has requested additional documentation from GoB.

“So nuh tell da just so much the man di get pay, show we the check, show we the wire transfer, so we need those things so we can verify and follow if any more check or transfers were done in that line. That is where we are; and let me tell you something: ih nuh done deh, you know, because other government ministers supposedly have permission too, we are hearing, and it should be more fees coming for other firms and other things coming, and we still nuh find we 15 million dollars yet, so these issues will not die,” he said.

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