Making a profit of just under four hundred thousand dollars in ordinary circumstances would perhaps never happen for the regular citizen but it happened for the son of Minister Gaspar Vega via transactions at the Lands Department which has now led to Vega’s resignation and in-depth investigation into past compensations made via the Lands Department. The recently appointed Minister of Natural Resources, Vanessa Retreage addressed the media during the press conference this afternoon stating that the concerns expressed over land deals is quite understandable and with that said she spoke of how she is going about tackling the Vega land issue.
“From my initial review of the files it is clear that the government of Belize did not have right to issue title to land which it did not own. Based on the contents of the file I have sent a memorandum of to the chief executive officer and the commissioner of lands requiring the further information be given in relation to certain issues which remain unclear. I have given a deadline to the close of business on Wednesday of this week for the information to be provided to me and thereafter a final decision will be made as to what action will be taken in relation to this matter. From the perspective of a minister of government whether in the capacity of Minister of Natural Resources or that of Minister with responsibility for legal affairs the focus must be to ensure the protection of government resources and where it is found that monies have been paid out wrongfully such monies must be recovered. Unjust enrichment at the expense of government cannot be countenanced. Some of the information contained in the files have been disclosed by the media but the information so far presented in the media is not the entire picture.”
In an effort to explain what the paper trail at the Lands Department shows regarding the parcel of land at the approach of the Haulover Bridge on the Philip Goldson Highway, Minister Retreage took us back to 1988 when Carlton Russel was the proper owner of the land including how Attorney Sharon Pitts also became a beneficiary of four hundred thousand dollars from the Government’s account for land compensation. Notably mentioned by Minister Retreage upon following the paper trail was the concerns expressed by the Lands Commissioner and the missing documents pertaining to minutes of meetings.
“In October 2011 an unknown person within the lands department provided the commissioner of lands with information including copies of the maps that the survey for the said parcel of land was already in existence and was recorded as entry #717 in survey register number nine. The minutes of the file indicate that instructions were given to the national estate officer by the commissioner of lands at that time to revoke the permission to survey. The file contains a copy of a letter dated 3rd November 2011 addressed to Sharon Pitts informing her that her mission to survey had been revoked as the land quote is not available to let. Despite the above a survey plan done at the request of Ms.Pitts was examined, approved and authenticated by the lands department on 8 November 2011 and recorded as entry #13464. This survey stated that it “supersedes entry #717 register #9.” The survey is dated 20th October 2011. There is no indication on the file as to who authorized what effectively amounted to a cancellation of the original survey done by Mr.Carlton Russell. It is important therefore that from the date this plan was authenticated whenever a search in the mapping section was done the only survey which would show as being valid would now be the Pitts Survey. There are limited situations in which a survey can be superseded by another and it is in my opinion at this stage that these circumstances do not fit into those limited circumstances. The minutes of the file further indicate that on 25th November 2011 there were concerns from the commissioner about the availability of this land but it also indicates that persons within the mapping department within the lands department indicated that the land was national land. These were concerns addressed from the commissioner to the National Estate Officer. There is no indication on the file as to what research was done and there is no indication on the file as to what action was taken to address these concerns. Sharon Pitts was issued a lease of approval on the 16th of November 2011 there is no signed acceptance of the conditions of the lease but on 22nd November 2011 Ms.Pitts applied for a grant of the said land and it is noted that the application was received by the commissioner of lands and surveys on that said day. On 30th November the Minister approved the sale at a purchase price of $10,569. The commissioner did not provide a written report to the Minister and made no recommendation for the sale of the parcel of this land. The full purchase price was paid on 24th July 2012. The grant was presented to the Minister for signature on the 4th September 2012 and was issued on 24th September 2012. I wish to state here that the minutes of the file that I recieved jump from Minute number 7 to minute number 25 so that minutes 8 to 24 are missing from the file.”
As you have heard, Minister Retreage has noted that Attorney Sharon Pitts has collected four hundred thousand dollars from the Government of Belize for that parcel of land. She further went on to explain that another four hundred thousand dollars has been paid out to Andre Vega over the same parcel of land near the Haulover Bridge. Here is how that process went.
“Based on an evaluation of the value of land done by Mr.Herman Castillo the compensation was stated to be $400,000 for Ms.Sharon Pitts plus .63 acres of land. The money was paid by way of an initial payment in the amount of $100,000 on March 11th 2015 with payments of $50,000 per month continuing until the 11th of September 2015 when the last payment was made. It is important to note that the valuation report done by Mr.Castillo which was used as a basis to the payment of Ms.Pitts was dated in 2013 well before the letter was sent to Ms.Pitts and the valuation valued the land at that time at $1.7 million dollars. The next file in time is that of Hilmar Alamilla. Hilmar Alamilla received permission to survey 1.24 acres of land along the Northern Highway on 17th January 2012. There is no evidence on the file that prior to receiving the application to survey there was any lease application lodged by Mr.Alamilla. On 20th November 2011 a survey plan done at the request of Mr.Alamilla was examined ,approved and authenticated on 6th December 2012. By this time the survey plan of Mr. Carlton Russell as I had mentioned before had effectively been cancelled by the authentication of the Pitts Survey. On December 12th 2012 Mr.Alamilla lodged an application to lease 1.24 acres of national land. This application though dated 10th January 2012 was not lodged with the lands until 12th December 2012. On 15th January 2013 the commissioner of lands and survey made a recommendation to the Minister for the sale of the land to Mr.Alamilla to a price of $6,171 dollars. On 16th January 2013 the land purchase approval issued to Hilmar Alamilla with the purchase price being stated at $6171 was shown to contain a note from the then Minister which was dated 23 January 2013 directing that the purchase price be reassessed for $2,500. On January 29 2013 a revised purchase approval of land form was sent to Mr.Alamilla noting the purchase price to be $2,500 as directed. On January 31st the purchase price was paid in full. The grant of national lan was issued on 7th May 2013. On December 30th 2013 title to the land was transferred to Andre Vega for a sum of $15,000. In July of that same year the land was mortgaged to the Atlantic Bank. The Hilmar Alamilla compensation file. On July 27th 2015 a letter was sent from the commissioner of lands and surveys indicating to Mr.Vega indicating that there was duplication and the commissioner in the letter expressed an understanding that Andre Vega was willing to surrender his title to the government of $400,000. Mr. Vega wrote to the Ministry and accepted the offer of the government. Payments were made to Andre Vega commencing on the 14th September 2015 with an initial payment of $100,000 and continued at $50,000 per month until the last payment was made on 8th March 2016.”
Minister Retreage says following this discovery she is now obliged to review all compensation files with an aim at recovering revenue for the Government.
“It is evident from the information provided that the files were not processed in the manner in which they ought to have been processed. The emergence of this file now means that I must review all compensation files and my CEO has advised me that the issue of compensation payments was being examined by the AG and that she concluded her examination of the same late last year so that we should see a report from the AG in relation to these matters. I have tasked legal counsel within the Ministry to take all steps to ensure that there are safeguards included in any contract of sales for national lands to private persons. But this is only one aspect of the measures we are seeking to put in place and the CEO will now elaborate on other measures but I wish to close by reiterating my commitment to taking every step necessary to recover monies which are discovered to have been wrongfully paid out but I must assure myself that I have all the relevant information before embarking on that process.”
According to Retreage, an audit report was concluded late last year on compensations made and they are awaiting the report from the Auditor General.