On Friday last week, Audrey Matura Shepherd accepted an invitation to meet with one of the most controversial names in recent Belizean history- Lord Michael Ashcroft; controversial because by the end of 2007, the then PUP government had sold several of Belize’s utilities to Ashcroft. But after the 2008 elections when the UDP rode to victory, the Prime Minister nationalized those private utilities- namely BTL and BEL. The nationalization of those utilities is the corner stone of the litigations now facing the Government of Belize. However, although history reports that Ashcroft has been more generous to the PUP, reports are that both major political parties have, in the past, been financed by Michael Ashcroft.
So when a picture of Audrey Matura Shepherd and her son at a breakfast meeting with Lord Ashcroft at the Radisson began circling in social media, several alarms were raised and speculation was rampant.
At a press briefing on Wednesday, Audrey Matura Shepherd explained the general gist of the one hour meeting in hopes of dispelling all rumors. According to Matura, the meeting went by cordially and though, according to her, Ashcroft told her he had no agenda to call the meeting, Matura says ‘she’ went with an agenda.
On her agenda were three main questions. The first had to do with the fall out between him and the Prime Minister. She explained.
“My agenda, I told him, and as I discussed with him, I brought the three issues I wanted address. I recall having told you all the history of how I first met him and why I was not pleased with his money being accepted by the U.D.P. I recall that he had a very good relations with the then party leader; in fact the firm of the Prime Minister is still his firm for the Belize Bank and so I had to ask him—like anybody would—like ‘What happened to you two?’ That was one of my questions.
The second one was ‘Will you litigate the country to death?’ I don’t know how many of you follow the litigation and the implication it is for Belize, but from my legal training, I can tell you it has some severe implications. And the third thing was having said all of that, having realized the animosity between him and the country; I had to ask, ‘Is there room for compromise?’ I mean why would you not give up the opportunity if you can hear this person out to bring some kind of sense of peace, semblance and putting aside this problem that we have—because it is a problem lot of Belizean want to accept it or not.
So let me give the answers. To the first question, what went wrong, he said basically he didn’t say anything bad about the now prime minister. He said he doesn’t know what went wrong. He financed their campaign that got them into office before the previous election and he knew that they had good relations. He said up to today they still talk and meet on different occasions. And it would be so good if they declare—since I have to be so open about anybody I meet—I think we need to ask the government to start to declare when they meet. I mean it goes so far like I can confirm that when the prime minister was to get married, his wife’s bachelorette party was held on the yacht belonging to Mister Ashcroft.
So there is a relationship, so they need to disclose the extent of those relationships and meetings. I have no problem disclosing mine.
So what then happened was that he said, as far as he was concerned, everything was OK. He was taken aback, and he said it’s unfortunate that he was painted as the villain, to justify all that has happened since.”
The second and third questions had to do with a lawsuit against the Government of Belize concerning the Nationalization of BTL and BEL, which according to Audrey Matura Shepherd could inevitably see Belize paying a quantum of money to Lord Ashcroft for damages.
“In relation to the second question, ‘Will you litigate the country to death’, his simple answer was ‘Yes. On principle I will keep litigating because I must show that what was done to me was wrong and there is only one place I can prove that and that’s in the courts.’
But he did lament the appearances of independence of the courts and the fact that he is in litigation for six years now. So when I heard that yes, you will litigate, I know how the court system works and I know how many appeals could come about and I know how long it could go. But in the meantime like he rightly pointed out to me, which then required pointing out, is the attorneys who are making the money. If you all notice right now, every time the Ashcroft case goes to court, it is not the attorneys for the government that we pay a fixed salary that we go to defend those cases. It is all private attorneys and they are all connected to somehow the government of the day and their fees aren’t little fees”.
The third question on her agenda was whether or not Michael Ashcroft would consider a compromise. Audrey Matura Shepherd recounted that discussion.
“The third question about is there room for compromise. To me that was a logical question for me to ask . I am an attorney and if my client says they will litigate to death, I know that one of the things we are taught is mediation and negotiation.
So I had to ask if there is room for compromise, because Belize will pay a high price. I don’t know if people notice 2017 is not only a year slated for an election. But 2017-2018, a lot of things will change. Sugar is uncertain. PetroCaribe money will become due. That we know for sure. We know the world economy. We don’t know the stability of oil prices. We know that our oil wells have been depleting. Only one has been producing, and on top of that, we still have the Super Bond to pay. And what we are incurring, no matter how anyone wants to see it, I’ve always said it and I will say it again, there is no way that he Mister Ashcroft will not get some payment for his assets that were taken away from him.
The fight might be over quantum. And it doesn’t matter how much they fight, that day will come. Whether you like him or not, you have to be real. So I had to ask that question, ‘Is there room for compromise?’ And to my satisfaction, his answer was ‘Yes.’
Now how that compromise would take place, or how it would be brokered, or who would do it, I don’t know in details. So I said to him, ‘You know all these monies will be due,’ the ones I just listed. ‘So even if we owe you,’ I said, ‘There’s a possibility we won’t be able to pay you.’ And he said, in discussing whatever compromise is reached, he would also consider deferred payment.
Now I’ll tell you the truth, I think that bis something that is not in my prevue to do, but I threw it out because I think I was sounding the conscience of any right-thinking Belizean, to have wanted to know that question and answer.”