BELIZE CITY, Mon. Feb. 15, 2021– During the afternoon session of the Commission of Inquiry proceeding on the sale of government assets, Ruperto Vicente, who is the manager of Government’s Assets and Utilities Management Unit, of which the Vehicle Care Unit is a part, answered the initial questions posed by the members of the commission.
In presenting to the commissioners his account of the process through which a number of top government officials purchased government assets at significantly reduced prices prior to the general elections, Vicente, who chose to make an affirmation rather than swear his oath, said that there are two scenarios in which a vehicle taken out of rotation in the various Ministries would be sold by the government.
The first scenario he outlined is similar to what was described by former Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, and Financial Secretary Joseph Waight. He shared that unserviceable vehicles or those deemed useless by the government ministries would be sent to the Vehicle Care Unit for disposal. They would then do a summary valuation of the vehicle and review bids for the various items.
Vicente explained, “I then prepared a letter of approval and submitted it to the Financial Secretary. If it is more than one bid, then we sent copies of those bids along with the letter and, at times, picture of the said vehicle.”
Chairman of the commission, Andrew Marshalleck, SC, responded with the question, “And the approval would be to the person who made the higher bid?”
“Yes, that would be the recommendation,” Vicente replied, after which Marshalleck asked, “Invariably? Always?”
“Always,” Vicente said.
He shared that he would then present the letter to the Financial Secretary and engage in discussions to confirm if the bid was acceptable. If the Financial Secretary signed off on the bid, an indication of this was sent back to the Vehicle Care Unit, Vicente said.
“I would then prepare a file, with all the necessary documents, and send them to the office of the Prime Minister for his approval,” Vicente further explained.
Marshalleck then asked, “Is it invariably the case, always the case, that the Prime Minister approves or disapproves or considers personally these applications?”
“Yes, Sir,” Vicente replied.
(In his presentation to the commission, the former Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, had said that he did not see a written file concerning the sale of a 2020 Toyota Tacoma to Deputy Prime Minister Hugo Patt.)
In further describing the set of steps that led to the sale of specific government assets, Vicente went on to explain to the commission that after the Financial Secretary had signed off and the Prime Minister had given his approval, a sales letter would then be sent to the bidder who won the sale bid. He said that they would then pay within a month and would send the sale receipt to the Vehicle Care Unit, after which the vehicle would be transferred from the Motor Vehicle Inspector.
Vicente then went on to describe the other scenario in which sales of government assets, such as vehicles, would take place. He specified that such sales often involved vehicles that were “abandoned” — those left unused or parked in mechanic shops for long periods. He shared that the request would come to his department to purchase these vehicles, either in an intact state, or for parts.
In both instances, said Vicente, he prepared letters of approval for both the former Prime Minister and the Financial Secretary before the sale.
At this point, Marshalleck enquired, “Have there been instances where you have approved the sale on your own?”
Vicente replied, “No, Sir. No, Sir. Never. No, Sir. I would never do that.”
He further mentioned that a similar procedure is used for the sale of other assets.
The Chairman of the Commission then pointed out that most of the items were sold on the basis of them being unserviceable. He noted that, in the letter submitted by the Financial Secretary, most, if not all, the sales approval letters coming from Vicente’s office classified the particular vehicles being sold as unserviceable.
“Are you aware that the Finance and Audit Reform Act authorizes sale but only through the use of one of the defined tenure procedures?” Marshalleck asked.
Vicente replied, “Yes, listening to this morning….Yes.”
“And are those tenure procedures ever followed,” Marshalleck further enquired.
“No,” said Vicente.
In reference to the sale of a vehicle to former Deputy Prime Minister Hugo Patt (which the former Prime Minister, during his presentation, said he had given oral approval for, but not written consent), Marshalleck asked, “I notice in the documentation that all the documents are addressed to Mr. Juvencia Herrera, and Mr. Hugo Patt’s name, in fact, appears nowhere.”
Vicente responded, “That is because, at times, when requests are made and someone is purchasing a vehicle or an air-conditioning, they would request that the sale be made in someone else’s name. That is a standing practice.”
Chairman Marshalleck then pointed out that the sales approval letter for vehicles purchased by Hugo Patt, Colin Griffith, and the former Justice of the Court of Appeal described those vehicles as “unserviceable.” According to Vicente, this was done in error.
The furniture purchased by the former Attorney General, Michael Peyrefitte, was also listed as unserviceable, according to the records.
The documents show that the Prime Minister signed off on approvals for all those sales except the sale made on behalf of Hugo Patt. (Vicente had outlined that the former Prime Minister and Financial Secretary would have discussions about each sale before giving him the directive for approval.) He shared that the decision was made after many discussions between the Prime Minister and Financial Secretary, and that they eventually directed him to approve the sale of the vehicle to the former Deputy Prime Minister.
“We had a discussion because of the state of affairs the country is in…” said Vicente.
“Yes, about not selling the vehicles…,” Marshalleck replied.
“That we would not sell any vehicles, and that we would retain the vehicles that the past administration’s ministers were driving, for the new Government, whichever Government would come in, and so he struggled, I must say that. He struggled with that a bit. And I believe that after much discussion, he then indicated to me that, yeah the sale of that vehicle for the Hon. Hugo Patt would go though,” Vicente went on to reveal.
“But he didn’t do it in writing? He did it orally?” asked Marshalleck.
“I believe he sent me an email. I would have to look for that,” Vicente replied. (It is to be noted that the email was not attached to the file for the sale of that vehicle.)
Marshalleck went on to ask, “These files that I mentioned were the ones identified by the [former] Prime Minister; all had his personal involvement in the approvals. Is that generally true for all the files in the box?”
“Yes, Sir,” Vicente confirmed.
“He signed off on all of them?” asked Marshalleck.
“Yes, Sir. And I will not, let me clarify here, I have been, branded as a very stiff person,” Vicente said.
“Strict,” suggested Marshalleck.
To this, Vicente replied, “Very strict, and I brought it with me from football, as a referee. And I had declared to the Prime Minister at one time, ‘I would not send anything to your desk without giving you the necessary information,’ and I have kept to that. I have had people come to my office and request, and I would not, I would not give up a Government asset… to anyone without first sending that information or getting the approval of the Financial Secretary and the [former] Prime Minister.”
Vicente continued: “Even now, we have CEOs who have come and they have put on my desk request for items, and I have sent that to the Prime Minister’s office and it’s been there for the past two or three weeks, not signed. I cannot give it up.”
In response, Chairman Marshalleck remarked that notwithstanding Vicente’s declaration, the documentation coming from his department categorizes the sold assets as “unserviceable” when, in fact, most were working fine.