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Senate Inquiry delves into Portico project

HeadlineSenate Inquiry delves into Portico project

Photo: David Gegg, Portico Enterprise Ltd. CEO testifies before the Senate Special Select Committee on the Portico Definitive Agreement

Developer testifies 7-figure campaign financing request made to expedite Portico project

BELMOPAN, Wed. May 8, 2024

The testimony today of Port of Magical Belize developer, David Gegg, CEO of Portico Enterprise Ltd., will be regarded as one of the highlights of the Senate Special Select Committee inquiring into the genesis and aftermath of the signing of the much maligned Portico Definitive Agreement on October 1, 2020. The signing between Gegg and then Minister of Economic Development, Hon. Erwin Contreras took place just over a month before the November 11, 2020 general elections. The document featured sweeping concessions and fiscal incentives, the likes of which some said had never been seen before. A copy of the document ended up being torn up symbolically in Parliament by Prime Minister John Briceño on Friday, June 16, 2023. He was reacting to the resounding public criticism of the agreement which, as several officials from the then Barrow Cabinet vouched, had not gotten Cabinet approval and that, in their view, made the signing by Contreras unlawful.

But, testifying very openly and frankly on Wednesday, except for a few details he kept close to his chest, Gegg, who says he has 52 years of experience in tourism and helped bring cruise tourism to Belize in the late 1990s, affirmed that the Portico Definitive Agreement is “… valid, is binding and is enforceable.” Gegg says this is so because they ultimately secured environmental clearance in a phased approach on April 9, 2021 under the Briceño Administration. He reported that they have been paying environmental monitoring fees every year since, with the latest payment being made just last month. The total of those fees, he says, is $450,000.

Furthermore, Gegg declared to the Senate Committee that they are proceeding with the Port of Magical Belize project and have, since launching the initiative over 7 years ago, already “expended close to 15 million Euros in development capital.” That expenditure, says Gegg, has been made by Portico and its partners, one of which is Netherlands-based Boskalis (Gegg says the initial projected cost was US$150 million but noted that this has since gone up). As he made his pitch for his project and took a swipe at his competitor, the Stake Bank Port Coral project which he says will likely never be opened, Gegg proclaimed that there is no room for any other port in the vicinity except Port of Magical Belize. Anticipating a 2028 project launch, he added, “… we continue to incur costs on works being carried out as we speak. Today, there are teams of scientists and their support crews at our sites carrying ground truthing exercises after using Lidar drones and artificial intelligence to make initial determinations of mangrove cover.”

There was some excitement in the National Assembly chamber during Gegg’s testimony, when, under the questioning of PUP Senator Bevington Cal, the developer stated that what he concluded was a campaign financing request was made in September of 2020. He shared, “I received a message, and I interpreted that message as saying to me that the environmental documentation approved in August 28, would not be concluded in the absence of a significant campaign contribution.” “By who?” Senator Cal asked; and Gegg responded, “I can’t say.” Asked further, “What was the amount asked for?” Gegg would only say, “seven figures.” As the Senator tried to establish who made the request, if it was a member/s of the then UDP government, Gegg responded, “Well, they were the only ones in the position to conclude the Environmental Compliance Plan.” Gegg clarified however, “we did not pay anything to anybody.”

Before the senators started questioning Gegg, who appeared with attorney Andrew Bennett, he shared a prepared statement that lasted just over 26 minutes. He remarked that it is high time the facts are shared with the Belizean people. He also affirmed he was attending with clean hands.

Gegg then launched into a narrative of how the Port of Magical Belize initiative came about, with the plan being developed in conjunction with consultants from Miami. He shared that first engagement with the Government started in June 2017, and subsequent meetings, including with the then Prime Minister Dean Barrow, followed. Instrumental in securing the meeting with the PM was then UDP Senator Stephen Duncan who, he said, also attended some cruise industry meetings with him. Gegg outlined that cruise tourism is his bread and butter, and he secured endorsements from cruise executives and then Boskalis, with an agreement being signed with the latter in May 2019. Gegg also affirmed that there was no need for local financing as his international partner provided the required financing with reference letters from European bankers.

In 2020, the year of the general elections, Gegg says they were pushing through the environmental clearance process and were assured that the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) submitted in March 2020 would be approved. Simultaneously, by June 1st, Gegg says a draft of the Definitive Agreement was circulated. Then, the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) asked for supplemental information; and according to Gegg, they were advised that the project had received environmental clearance on August 28, 2020. Not long after, however, Gegg says, “there was a suggestion that there may not have been a quorum at the meeting of August 28.” Gegg proceeded to share that, when he had not heard from NEAC nor the chair of the Cabinet Investment Sub-Committee or anyone else, he reached out to Minister Contreras for some guidance. Gegg says Contreras asked for time to seek advice. He noted that when Contreras responded, it was to say that before signing the agreement, “We would need to insert certain conditions precedent, including that the agreement would not take effect until Portico had obtained environmental clearance.” Gegg, who had retained Morales Peyrefitte LLP to draft the Definitive Agreement, indicated that attorney David Morales said that was doable, and the agreement was amended. Signing then took place on October 1, 2020. As to the big question of whether or not Minister Contreras could sign the Definitive Agreement, Gegg remarked that he knew nothing of any protocols or procedures the government may have had in that regard, but he knew Contreras was an elected representative, a substantive minister and “an agent of the state.”

As to what transpired under the subsequent PUP administration that led to environmental clearance being granted for the Portico project, Gegg outlined that in January of 2021, Boskalis representatives visited Belize once more and “freshly-dated equity commitment letters were delivered to Prime Minister Briceño.” He says they also met with Sustainable Development Minister Orlando Habet and Tourism Minister Anthony Mahler.

Asked who drafted the legislation that was tabled with the Cabinet Confidential before the Briceño Cabinet for acceptance last year May, Gegg said he was unaware. Asked also if the exemptions and concessions granted to Portico in the Definitive Agreement were in the best interest of Belize, he clarified that at this time, Portico is not enjoying any exemptions because the Definitive Agreement needs to be approved by Parliament. He stated, however, “I think what we expect to have is necessary.”

Gegg is expected to appear once more before the Committee at a date to be announced.

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