BELIZE CITY, Fri. July 19, 2019– The Government of Belize won a major victory in the Supreme Court this afternoon when the civil case against Andre Vega concluded before Supreme Court Justice Courtenay Abel, who ruled that the $400,000 that the Ministry of Natural Resources paid to Vega as compensation for a duplicate Minister’s Fiat Grant amounted to unjust enrichment, and ordered him to return the money to the government.
In 2016, a major scandal broke involving Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega, area representative for the Orange Walk North constituency, who, as Minister of Natural Resources, authorized a $400,000 compensation payment to his son, Andre Vega, for a property near the Haulover Bridge.
As it turned out, the property was privately owned by Carlton Russell, but somehow, the government had sold it to Hilmar Alamilla for a fraction of its actual market value.
Alamilla, a friend of the Vegas, then resold it to Andre for $15,000.
The Ministry of Natural Resources then compensated Vega with $400,000, the market value of the land, because the parcel in question was already privately owned. The Ministry of Natural Resources also paid another $400,000 to attorney Sharon Pitts, who had invested in a property in the same area.
After this scandal came to light, Hon. Gaspar Vega resigned from the Dean Barrow-led Cabinet as Minister of Natural Resources. Since his resignation, the once-powerful Vega has disappeared from the political scene, remaining underground—and even in House of Representatives meetings, he has absented himself.
Under the rules governing elected members of the House of Representatives, Hon Vega’s string of absences should have already triggered a by-election for his seat.
Andre Vega was defended by attorney Estevan Perrera, who concluded his oral defense against the government’s claim that his client had been unjustly enriched from the Ministry of Natural Resources’ compensation package, and that his enrichment was contrary to public policy.
Immediately following Perrera’s presentation, Justice Abel began reading from a judgment that he had already started.
As he neared the end of his presentation, Justice Abel asked Perrera, who was the Minister of Natural Resources who had signed the Minister’s Fiat Grant for Andre Vega.
Perrera replied that he didn’t know.
In his judgment, however, Justice Abel referred to the fact that Hon. Gaspar Vega was the Minister of Natural Resources, and said that was all the more reason why this particular transaction should be scrutinized more closely.
At one point, Justice Abel described the transaction as merely “smokes and mirrors,” saying that the transaction was “fundamentally flawed.”
Justice Abel could not find a sound reason for the payment of the compensation to Vega, who apparently had access to the Lands Department’s computerized database and had done a title search for the property in question, but had failed to discover that it was private property.
The judge also noted that neither the claimant’s (GOB’s) primary witness, the Commissioner of Lands, nor the defendant (Vega) saw it as prudent to produce a copy of the land title for the court’s perusal.
Justice Abel also questioned why Hilmar Alamilla was removed from the claim, saying that he could have provided the court with additional evidence since he first invested in the property.
The court concluded that Vega was unjustly enriched by the compensation and that it was contrary to public policy, and also, his defense did not defend against that assertion of the claimant.
If Vega was entitled to compensation, it was Alamilla who should have compensated him.
The other claim from the government involved a request for the recovery of monies paid out as compensation to Sharon Pitts for private property that she had acquired from the government and that was later reclaimed by GOB. Pitts, however, had opted for her matter to be dealt with through court-supervised mediation, where the proceedings are private and are not open to the media or the public.