Inquiry into Controversial Portico Agreement Begins
The first in a series of hearings took place today surrounding the genesis and the approval of the now infamous Definitive Agreement between the government and Portico Enterprises. The hearing got underway just after ten o’clock this morning where former Minister of State in the Ministry of Investment and Trade, Tracy Panton, was called as the first witness. In her near 2 hours in the witness seat, Panton confirmed that at the time of the signing of the agreement, the members of the Investment Committee were the former government officials, Patrick Faber as the Deputy Prime Minister; Michael Peyrefitte as the Attorney General; Manuel Heredia Jr., as the then Tourism Minister; Godwin Hulse, as the Minister of Agriculture, and Hugo Patt as the Minister of Natural Resources. These individuals, along with Panton, were the persons who would review investment portfolios prior to them reaching Cabinet. Panton distanced herself from the approval of the agreement, but did say that she was aware that such an endeavor was being pursued as she was contacted on the matter.
Tracy Panton, Former Minister of State in the Ministry of Investment: “With the Portico project the furthest that I recall that to be reached was step five, which is in the process of doing a detailed assessment on the post-MOU agreement. There was some agitation, if you will, by the principals to expedite, if you will, a definitive agreement based on the fact that the elections were near and they wanted this agreement to be, this process to be completed under our administration. That was not entertained and it was not entertained because to get to the MOU stage there are three critical steps that had to be in place. One, the environmental impact assessment had to be completed and there had to be an approved environmental compliance plan. Two, the land arrangements for the project had to be in place. And in the case of Portico some of the land that was being considered, that was necessary for the project, was in the hands of private landowners. The principals of Portico had asked the government to negotiate the acquiring of those lands for the project and that request was denied. And third, there had to be clear commitment by a financial institution either here or abroad that would commit to 30 percent of the investment cost of the project. There were other things but those were the three critical things that needed to be in place before a definitive agreement could be negotiated.”
Janelle Chanona, Senate Select Committee: Who was agitating and to whom and beyond the planned national elections on what basis were they attempting to?
Tracy Taegar Panton: “The attorney for Portico, who as I can recall was David Morales, had reached out to the investment director at Beltraide. The director had reached out to me and I didn’t even take it to the committee. It was not even entertained. When Mr. Morales did not get the kind of response I think he had hoped for from Beltraide he then sent me an email asking if the government would consider fast tracking, if you will, the definitive agreement. And I had responded that unless the criteria that I shared with you was met that the matter could not go before the committee. We had a subsequent committee meeting after that email was sent to me by Mr., very informal email, “
Janelle Chanona, Senate Select Committee: “Do you remember the time of that email or the approximate date of that email?”
Tracy Taegar Panton: “I don’t have it, but I know it was on the media somewhere. I’m sure we can find it. I don’t recall. It was in 2020. It was early part of 2020, if I can recall. I don’t have the date. We can verify that information. We had a subsequent meeting of the CSCI after that email and the committee agreed that there was no way a definitive agreement could be expedited. I shared the information as a matter of information because it was my sense that the principals were reaching out to people individually to try and garner some support for accelerating the definitive agreement. So I wanted the committee members to understand exactly where I stood on the issue and that they could be aware that there was some lobbying being done for this to happen. Committee members at that meeting all agreed that we were no place close to signing or even negotiating a definitive agreement. I was not aware, neither did I recommend or consider a definitive agreement for Portico.”
The second witness, former Attorney General Michael Peyrefitte, was called to testify in the afternoon session. In this portion of the hearings, Peyrefitte’s partnership with his former law partner, David Morales, was questioned along with how the definitive agreement was being pushed against the existing protocols. He additionally spoke on the accommodations within the agreement which he has referred to as mind-blowing.
Michael Peyrefitte, Former Attorney General: “You would have an MOU and based on that MOU the government spearheaded by Beltraide and the Ministry of Investment would then put certain tasks to the developer. Now that we have an understanding as to what you want to do and now that we are interested in this project, for example, these are the things that you must execute. Once they execute then we report to Cabinet the MOU position, we report to Cabinet what all we expect from them before we even think about definitive agreement. And then once you report that back to Cabinet that yes, after the MOU we require these 10 things of these people. They have satisfied these 10 things. What is the position of Cabinet? Cabinet would then say, well, they haven’t satisfied the 10 things, then we’re not doing a definitive agreement. Or they have satisfied these 10 things, let’s prepare a definitive agreement. Mr. Attorney General, instruct your ministry to prepare a definitive agreement to reflect this project. That’s how it would happen.”
Janelle Chanona, Senate Select Committee: “Were you ever aware at any point that a minister had independently signed something and you were made aware of it after the fact?”
Michael Peyrefitte, Former Attorney General: “I became aware of that after the definitive agreement was leaked.”
Janelle Chanona, Senate Select Committee: “So that was the only instance?”
Michael Peyrefitte, Former Attorney General: “That was the only instance that I’m aware of, that a minister signed something against an established protocol of cabinet. As it pertains to the definitive agreement. I was fully aware of an MOU. The MOU, sorry, Senator, the MOU for Portico did come to cabinet and the majority of cabinet said, yes let’s proceed with an MOU because it’s non-binding and it’s exploratory at best.”
Kevin Herrera, Senator: “In your view, the exemptions that are contained in that document, are they unusual?”
Michael Peyrefitte, Former Attorney General: “Some of them are extremely unusual. There are some that exempt you from getting Central Bank approval for financing, you pretty much are to have free access to foreign currency with no check and balance. It goes as far as to nearly say you could open a bank for yourself. There were certain stipulations in this definitive agreement that were just simply mind-blowing.”
We will have more on today’s hearing in tomorrow’s newscast.