It has been barely two months since Attorney/Senator Vanessa Retreage took over the Lands Department from Minister Godwin Hulse. During’ her brief stint several issues alluding to corruption have surfaced involving former Lands Minister Gasper Vega. Two moths is a short time to conduct a thorough investigation and with that she was asked just how far she had gotten with this investigation among others.
“One of the things, and I will address the compensation issue because it is a live issue and it is an issue that the media retains an interest in for obvious reasons. Even arriving at what you call the $70 million it’s less than that but arriving at that figure took some doing. The process for compensation we had to examine what the policy is, when do you pay compensation, why do you pay compensation, how is land acquired by the government those things were not specifically written down anywhere. Certainly as it relates to compulsory acquisition of land that is by statute but as it relates to settlements in cases where for instance there is duplication there was not a defined procedure that has changed. We have now been working on a policy to put in place where we will see the involvement of senior management in the first instance and thereafter the minister and the ministry of finance in the second instance. Traditionally how it has been dealt with at the ministry was that the valuation department really looks at these things and they negotiate with a person until they arrive at at settlement. The involvement of senior management was limited to the commissioner of lands and survey so I feel that for any of these issues where the government would be required to pay any amount of money for whatever purpose it has to have ministerial involvement from the natural resources in the first instance and thereafter sent to the Ministry of Finance for approval so that is one of the things that we have been doing in relation to the compensation issue. As it relates to all other sections and units within the ministry of natural resources one of the things that we have done over the past three months is to conduct what I refer to as sensitization sessions where the head of each unit along with their senior staff made presentations to me in relation to where they are, where gaps are and how we fill the gaps. One of the gaps identified for example in the national estate section was that they were making recommendations to the minister without doing the proper vetting in relation to whether or not the land was available to lease, purchase. I have asked the national estate section, and this is probably the reason why someone texted me and asked me if there was a lockdown at the ministry, because applications weren’t being churned out as quickly as normal. There is now a requirement that there is a route of title prepared for each parcel so that it shows whether or not the land is indeed owned by the government and and is available to be leased or given by way of grant. So that is for the national estate section and there are other initiatives I could be here all afternoon but I could set them out and send them to you if that is fine.”
It is not to be ignored that these matters did come about under the management of the current Lands Commissioner Wilbert Vallejos and CEO Sharon Young. Retreage says the two senior officials were questioned.
“The Ron-Jay file has gone through it has led us down another course and I will be making a release on that shortly. Please appreciate that when I say that I have been looking into it I really have and I intend to make a release before I leave about what will be done in relation to certain companies connected to that company that you named in relation to the Vega Pitts file; specific questions were put to the commissioner and the CEO based on those questions that file was sent to the attorney general’s ministry for the solicitor general to provide advice to me on that. He has also been instructed to prepare the claim forms because those are going to be filed before the end of the year as well.”
Prime Minister Dean Barrow says he is not downplaying the concerns of many surrounding the issues at lands and he is confident that they will be addressed. This, he told the media following a reminder to the audience of land scandals done under the People’s United Party.
“I don’t know that there is any need for an investigation. If the facts are as you say and as the honorable member for Lake Independence recited then that is to be condemned out of hand. There is no need for any investigation but I merely want to make the point that those who raised this, those who pursue this can get that immediate admission from the government but also have the government remind them of what happened in far more outrageous terms when they were in government. You know I some years ago bought a piece of land in the village of Consejo from a private individual and I recollect it was not too far from where the customs house is, not too far from the water but it was not sea front and in trying to inquire whether there was anybody willing to sell a sea front property I discovered that the entire sea front by the customs house was owned by Florencio Marin and Valdemar Castillo. Not too long ago there was the question of 100 lots in the name of Florencio Marin in Palmar. Look at the situation in Sarteneja where again ex ministers of the PUP government ended up with thousands of acres of land, my good cousin one William Arthur Lindo I just see where between October 2007 and a few months there after he got 1,500 acres of land. All I’m saying is we are prepared to accept what is wrong and we are prepared to ensure that consequences are attached to the wrongdoer that is the difference between this administration and the last administration.”
Dr Carla Barnett will be taking over from Retreage at the start of 2017.