The long awaited discussion with former Minister of State of Immigration, Elvin Penner, happened this morning at the Senate Committee Inquiry in Belmopan. Penner lost his job as Minister following the Wong Hong Kim scandal where he allegedly recommended and pushed through a Belizean passport for the South Korean who was at the time in a Taiwanese cell, yet somehow, Kim became a Belizean Citizen in a swift process at the Nationality department. Today, Penner, without an attorney present, started by saying out right that he would not discuss the Wong Hong Kim situation because he has the right not to incriminate himself for any future criminal proceedings. He started by saying that he was acquitted of 2 charges on July 24th, 2014. Those are “Making a statement known to be false in material” and “vouching the fitness of an applicant to receive a Belizean passport contrary to section 3. 1 H of Passport Act Chapter 164 of the Laws of Belize, Revised Edition 2003”. Both those charges were in relation to the nationality application of Wong Hong Kim. He says there was an appeal and that was dismissed as well. He then quoted an ordinance to justify his decision not to discuss the Wong Hong Kim case.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Every person summoned to attend to give evidence or to produce and paper, book, record or document, before the assembly or a committee, should therefore be entitled in respect to such evidence or disclosure of any communication or the production of any such paper before book, record, or document to the same right or privilege as before a court of law. Having dually been acquitted by a company in the court of Belize, the Wong Hong Kim episode is to regarded as a closed chapter. As all lawyers would say, “Res Juricata” and I will not be responding to any questions relating to that issues, or any related issue which could have been the subject of the criminal prosecution that concluded on the 24th of July 2014. In this regard, I pray the protection of section 6, subsection 5 of the constitution of Belize. It has to be of some importance that under the evidence act chapter 95 of the laws of Belize, there is no provision to propel a witness to answer question related to his/her acquittal. There are provisions however that allows for the questioning of witnesses in certain instances to be questioned about a prior conviction, see section 58 subsection E 1 2 and 3. In addition, the privilege provided under section 60, subsection 1 of the evidence act Chapter 95 the laws of Belize will also be relied upon in regards to a certain portion of my testimony. If appropriate, this provides protection against self incrimination. Having laid out the rights and privileges afforded to me under the law; I am not prepared to furnish a response to any questions that are legally permissible and questions that are relevant to the findings of the Auditor General’s Special report, period 2011-2013.
While that was Penner’s statement this morning, the chair explained to him the danger of that position.
Aldo Salazar, Chairman, Senate Select Committee: So in my view, the only legitimate reason for you to refuse to answer any question is whether it is not a matter which is the subject of this inquiry; and even in that case, I am ordering the answer of that question; if it is in my opinion to do so. You also speak of the constitutional provision. The constitutional provision can only be called upon where you are the subject of a criminal investigation or a criminal process. This committee cannot find you guilty of any criminal wrong doing, so this evidence cannot lead to any criminal finding by us. The only thing that can come from this in terms of criminal proceedings is the issue of perjury.
The Chair warned Penner of sanctions of $1000 or 2 years imprisonment for not answering questions. Penner says he would stick to the legal advice of his attorney. The discussion then started on the visa section of the audit report. Penner admitted that he made recommendations for visa applications and said that he thought it was part of his duty as the Minister of state in Immigration.
Aldo Salazar, Chairman, Senate Select Committee: Yes the Auditor General noted that yourself as minister of government made recommendations and requests, according to her, to immigration officers for VISAs to be issued to specific individuals including a number of Asians. Did you make these recommendations as well?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Yes I have made recommendations. They were normally, as far as I can recall addressed and given to the director or acting director of immigration.
Aldo Salazar, Chairman, Senate Select Committee: Was there any law or authority which allowed you to do so?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Not that I’m aware of.
Aldo Salazar, Chairman, Senate Select Committee: On what basis would you do so, would you give a recommendation?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Well as the Minister responsible for immigration, I thought that to be kind of, a part of my duties because I was responsible for the immigration department. A lot of individuals would come for assistance in a lot of matters in regards to immigration and the VISA section is a part of that immigration department so I didn’t see it, in anyway unfit for me to make such a recommendation, and in all of my recommendations I can recall, the recommendation letter would state at the end specifically that the VISAs are requested but should only be granted if all requirements of that application are met.
The chair asked Penner if those recommendations by him ensured a faster than normal process or a certainty of the approval.
Aldo Salazar, Chairman, Senate Select Committee: When there was a recommendation by you for a VISA, would this precipitate the delivery of that VISA quicker than the normal course?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Not at all.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Not at all.
Aldo Salazar, Chairman, Senate Select Committee: Did you feel that there was any pressure brought to bear on immigration officers to issue VISAs for those who you had recommended?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Well it certainly shouldn’t have been on the immigration officers because like what I said the request was always directed at the Director of the Immigration and as career public officers they all know their responsibilities. And like I said I have never asked for any special privilege to be granted to anyone of these applicants. So I don’t see why they should have felt pressured, as long as they did their job, they do it correctly to the best of their ability, they shouldn’t have felt pressure and would have been in no danger of any repercussions if they did not do what was asked of them if what is asked of them to do would in any way be improper
Penner says he wrote recommendations for people he knew very well, not the person wanting to come into the country but those already here who were either sponsoring the visitors or inviting them. However, he insists that no visas were granted because of his recommendations but solely on the basis of whether the applications were complete and met the requirements. However, Senator Elena Smith brought his attention to a note by Penner that was mentioned in the Audit report.
Elena Smith, Senator: What would you normally write in a recommendation?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: I can’t recall the exact words, but normally it would be directed to the Director of Immigration and it would simply state the person’s name who is being the sponsor, or in others words the invitee, inviting these individuals. It would state the names of the individuals that are being invited. And the last thing on the recommendation would say please approve the following VISA application if all requirements and qualifications are met.
Elena Smith, Senator: You said earlier to Senator Courtney that your qualifications should not have had any impact on whether they were approved or not; but you’re telling me now that your final note was please approve.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Of course.
Elena Smith, Senator: So how do the two…. If you are saying to the director please approve, but you are telling us that those recommendations had no impact on whether they would receive or not.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Well at the end of the day like I said if they were missing any documents or don’t qualify regardless of anything, they would not and should not have been approved.
Elena Smith, Senator: Yet you said please approve.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Yes.
However, Penner later said while it may have had an effect on the immigration personnel, it shouldn’t have. He further explained a note that the then Director Ruth Meighn referred to when she approved three Asian nationals. That note written by Penner told the director to please approve the applications of the three persons.
Elena Smith, Senator: Earlier you had said that you don’t believe that any recommendations that you make should have any impact on whether any VISAs should be approved or not correct?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: That’s right.
Elena Smith, Senator: But here, the director is saying that is was approved on the basis of a note from yourself. So would you say that in this instance your note had a positive effect on the approval of this one?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: I have not once denied that the notes and requests of ministers and even myself for sure did not have an effect. I am saying that they should not have had. And in this case, whatever Miss Meighn wrote on that request is what she chose to write, and I can’t control what she chooses to write on that form, on that application, or on that approval of that application.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: If I would have directed her it would not have said Can you please approve, I would say I direct you to approve, and I never did do that.
Elena Smith, Senator: Well earlier Mister Penner you said to me that in your recommendation letter that you would end by saying, please approve. (yes) You were just being nice, by saying please approve. It’s the same thing, you were giving a directive, but you were using a nice word.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: I think you’re a very smart woman and I think you’re really confusing yourself and everyone else by saying that. A directive and a request are two very very very totally different situations.
Elena Smith, Senator: Unfortunately you learnt that too late.
Penner says that it was probably his first note when he was just getting the hang of his job as all other requests included that those approvals should be done IF the applications met all legal requirements. ……A little later on we’ll show you how the discussion on Wong Kong Kim went in the afternoon session.