For the first time in Belize’s history, a sitting Prime Minister has been found guilty of spending the government’s money illegally. Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, who had delayed the ruling in this case for several months, delivered his decision today much in favor of the People’s United Party (PUP) who took the Prime Minister to court over the spending of PetroCaribe monies in the period 2012/2013. The PUP emerged from the courtroom with all smiles. The media was there and spoke with Senior Counsel Eamon Courtney who criticized the Barrow administration for treating the Ministry of Finance like a panades shop.
SC Eamon Courtney, PUP Attorney: “What the Chief Justice found was that in relation to the first declaration which was to establish that for 2012-2013 the approximately $100 million that was spent that the Auditor General had identified which has never been approved by the National Assembly is unconstitutional so that the Minister of Finance who is the Prime Minister, Financial Secretary, has spent $100 million dollars without any parliamentary approval and the court has now pronounced in favor of the party leader and the Honorable Julius Espat that that is unconstitutional. Secondly in relation to the PetroCaribe well you know there were twenty one supplementary bills that were brought to cover expenditure of $1.4 billion that had been spent without parliamentary approval. The Chief Justice has found that all of those bills are unconstitutional and void for failing to comply with the constitution so we have approximately $1.5 billion dollars that was spent unconstitutionally. We also asked for an injunction to restrain the Minister of Finance from continuing this unconstitutional and illegal practice. The Chief Justice has granted that injunction to restrain him but has suspended the effect of that injunction for six months to give the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance an opportunity to amend the constitution to correct all of this so that they would have to propose an amendment to the constitution to retroactively approve all of this $1.5 billion which has been spent by the government unconstitutionally. To put it in plain man language the Chief Justice,and these are my words,found that the Prime Minister has been operating the government like a Panades shop and the result of his judgment today is to tell him in no uncertain terms that he must comply with the constitution, comply with the Finance and Audit Reform Act and go to parliament and get approval giving full disclosure as to how he intends to spend the people’s money and that he should stop behaving unconstitutionally.”
Also in the courtroom today was the Financial Secretary Joseph Waight. An unflustered Waight spoke to the media, saying they will have to reach out to the opposition in the case of the proposed amendments to the Constitution.
Joseph Waight, Financial Secretary: “Well my understanding, and I have to admit I didn’t hear all that well given the acoustics in the building but my understanding is that the judge the Chief Justice decided that certain elements he granted the claim particularly the first one which was that supplementaries were null and void but then on the other hand he gave the government time to fix it in the other parts of the claim. What we need to do is go back and first of all get the written judgment, better understand it and see what the implications are for the government. I would say it’s a partial – the claimants got part of what they wanted but not everything, we got some of what we were defending but we need to put it together and see what the implications are and how do we move on from here.”
Reporter: Now the other side said that in fact it has proven though, that it has established, that the government spent without parliamentary approval $1.43 billion dollars.
Joseph Waight, Financial Secretary: “Well we admitted, certainly conceded in testimony that certainly one year 2012-2013 the judge sees it that way we respect his judgment but he’s giving us time to fix it; that’s my understanding.”
Reporter: So now is there the will from the Minister of Finance, and I know you don’t speak for him, but is there the will from the Minister of Finance to go back to parliament and accept an error and seek to make a correction?
Joseph Waight, Financial Secretary: “That is what the court has determined. I’m sure that the Minister of Finance and the Ministry of Finance will comply with the decision of the court.”
Reporter: The criticism is that you all were running the government’s finances like one would a panades shop. Your response?
Joseph Waight, Financial Secretary: “I purchase panades, we don’t make panades in the Ministry of Finance and look at no time has there been any suggestion or hint of misappropriation or misuse of the money you know, it’s just how the money was authorized but the government needs authorizations to keep from going time to time. Urgent and unanticipated things come up and we have to allocate for it.”
Reporter: FinSec one of the big criticisms against you in this case that under your watch the government misplaced or misspent or made no accounting for $100 million what is your response to that ?
Joseph Waight, Financial Secretary: “We didn’t go to parliament yet for the $100 million dollars but it’s not misplaced, it’s not misspent. When we go to parliament in a few weeks time we will detail it exactly. It wasn’t misappropriated it didn’t go to parliament before so yes and that’s against the Finance and Audit Act we admitted that, we will correct it but it’s not misused, it’s not in any way you can’t say it was misappropriated or abused.”
Coming out of the courtroom this morning, the Leader of the Opposition, John Briceno had a message for the Prime Minister.
Hon. John Briceno, Opposition Leader, People’s United Party: “I think it is time that the Prime Minister understand that the people’s money is not his money and that he needs to be able to as the Minister of Finance give account for every cent of the Belizean tax payer that he spends. But what next ? Well I’m going to be meeting with my parliamentarians and we’re going to discuss in more detail the judgment and then wait and see what it is that the Prime Minister is going to do. I would not be surprised if the six months would be up and then the Prime Minister does not make an attempt to amend the constitution so we will wait, we will see but we are going to keep the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire.”
Reporter: If he is to amend the constitution will he not invariably need your support?
Hon.John Briceno, Opposition Leader, People’s United Party: “Absolutely but that is why I’m saying I need to sit down with our parliamentarians to discuss it but just as important we have to see what the amendment is going to be before we can say yes. So on principle if it is just to be able to fix what he has done illegally then probably it is something that we would seriously consider but we have to see what exactly he wants to amend and to ensure that it is only that and nothing else.”
The question now is whether the Government of Belize will appeal to the Chief Justice’s decision. The FinSec made no mention of that intention but according to Courtenay, he wouldn’t be surprised if they try.
SC Eamon Courtney, Attorney-at-Law: “I suspect if the government is to continue with it’s behavior I will expect that they would appeal. The problem with having an appeal in these circumstances for those of you who were here will recall, and the Chief Justice repeated it, that their counsel conceded these unconstitutionalities which the Chief Justice has found. So I think it would be a waste of the [eople’s money if once again we are appealing something that they have conceded. We should not forget that something must be radically wrong with a government who hires an expensive Queen’s Counsel to come to Belize to stand up in court and concede a case. Why have they not gone to the National Assembly and corrected this if their own lawyer came to court and said that they were acting unconstitutionally ? It’s an utter and complete disgrace. As I say they are behaving as if this is a panades shop.”
Reporter: Where now that this square with the penalties under the Finance and Audit Reform Act?
SC Eamon Courtney, Attorney-at-Law: “Let’s deal with Mr.John Saldivar first and then we’ll see who is next – batter up.”
The People’s United Party issued a release this afternoon on the ruling. The party noted, quote, “ Today’s ruling by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin is a victory for the people of Belize, not for the People’s United Party (PUP). In a historic and hopefully precedent-setting move, the Supreme Court has found that a sitting Prime Minister violated the Constitution, repeatedly, and has legally bound him from continuing the illegal practice of spending the people’s money and then, after the fact, asking approval from Parliament. The highest court in the land has told the Prime Minister that he broke the law, and he must desist. The PUP notes, with interest, that despite ruling that the Prime Minister broke the law, and that the spending of $1.5 BILLION dollars without Parliamentary approval was UNCONSTITUTIONAL, the Chief Justice in his wisdom has given the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance six months to right his wrongs through an amendment of the Constitution. Without a doubt, the UDP spin-doctors will call this a victory, but facts are facts. The Supreme Court has spoken. Prime Minister Dean Oliver Barrow broke the law, over and over and over again. This, then, must be seen as an end of an unlawful era.” End of quote. The release went on to accuse the Barrow administration of multiple corrupt acts./////