On Friday even as Prime Minister Dean Barrow was making his first public comment on the nature and extent of the scandal that led to his resignation, former Minister of State in charge of Immigration, Elvin Penner, was breaking his silence on the matter. Mr Penner admits to knowing a Won-Hong Kim before entering politics and says he personally facilitated this person to receive a passport that he urgently required to go on a trip. Secondly, he is now claiming that the photograph of Kim shown on national media outlets in the past few days looks somewhat different from the person he says he dealt with, that this person is “impersonating” Mr Kim.Finally, he says, “I can understand having made such a major oversight that in the best interest of the entire country it called for my resignation. What I cannot understand is why the officers have gotten suspended.” By which he means the trio from the Passport division of the Department, who according to the Prime Minister, failed to follow certain procedures. On Friday you heard P.M. Barrow insist that the Nationality section followed procedure and the former Minister alone was responsible for the signing of the nationality certificate on September 9 backdated by someone else – not the ex-Minister – to April 22, and he says he does not see criminal charges being filed. All of which leads us to Monday, when the Minister in charge, Godwin Hulse, faced the press for an update. First, he maintained that the systems put in place by himself since taking charge are working.
Hon. Godwin Hulse- Minister of Immigration
“As you heard the Prime Minister say in the House on Friday, we are still pursuing this investigations; as you all know, it’s secret that this passport was issued. One of the good things is of course, I must put on the record that the improvements we have put in the Department led us to be able to detect this. It continues their two legs; it is improper to suggest that in fact there’s no look at nationality; there’s been very intense look at nationality. In fact, the difference, however is that in the nationality sector, it is the Minister who signs the Nationality Certificate, and in this case, he did sign the certificate. In the passport sector, it is not the Minister; there is a process, a seven step process to getting a Belizean Passport to which some of you are very familiar with because when we launch it, we had done the media rounds…and that seven step procedure was supposed to prevent anything from going our eye, and this why we focused how we managed to go our eye”.
But the file on the case remains missing, according to the Minister.
Hon. Godwin Hulse
”No. Unfortunately… we have not been able to locate the file, but that again is another improvement because if you will recall that when there was a William Dickie shoe, we couldn’t find the passport file… we couldn’t find out any files at all, so, that died a natural death. This, we were able to capture the passport file due to the system we have put in the new filing systems and the recordings electronically and otherwise. So, we are able to determine exactly which officer, what time and how the whole process of passport went. We have, since this, improved the system for nationality, but remember, as it stands, the file went to the Minister for signing to him on September the 9th. Now, where it went from there, it’s somebody else’s guess and we say, he still has to say who he gave it back to. He simply said he sent it back to the Department and that doesn’t name anybody; that just names the Department”.
As for finding out who Won-Hong Kim is, the Minister says they have received confirmation from Taiwan that he is who he says he is.
Hon. Godwin Hulse
“To be frank with you, Jules, I saw your picture on Channel 7, I heard what was floating around on Facebook . The picture that was shown, it looks slightly different from the ones that we have in the passport, but that is still underway, I can say to you that once again, as late as Friday and again as late as this morning at 4:45, to be specific and exact, we have asked the Taiwanese authorities to be 100% accurate and certain of the photograph because this has emerged as an issue…and so, before we making a tremendous amount of noise, we want to be dead certain, this is the person! They have said so, they have reconfirmed at 4:45 this morning I asked for a final reconfirmation that that is indeed the person”.
The Minister told us he is not concerned about the discrepancy in the length of time that his former junior Minister says he knew the South Korean as that is his prerogative under the law. He also would not comment on any possible criminal charges or involvement of law enforcement departments.
One of the unanswered questions in the recent passport scandal surrounding Elvin Penner is the alleged involvement of Belize City Councilor Eric Chang. Chang, a second-term councilor elected as Deputy Mayor earlier this year, is the first Taiwanese-Belizean elected to any public office. But he went to Taiwan with Mayor Bradley and Minister of State Edmond Castro earlier this month and has not returned – that is, not until later this week. When he does return to City Hall, the Mayor says he will have some questions for him.
Mr. Darrel Bradley- Mayor of Belize City
“Let me say this really emphasized the issue of accountability and transparency at City Hall, so that we will deal with this very severely, but we’ll also deal with it very appropriately. There is an investigation going on Councilor Chang, who is our Deputy Mayor who is not in the country. He is due back in the country on October 3rd, when he comes into the country, I will immediately have a conference with him, I will raise the issue with him, I will get what his response is, I am awaiting a copy of the report that is being done in terms of the investigation from Immigration and based on those two things, speaking with Councilor Chang and the report from the investigation, then, we will take very swift and decisive action depending on the evidence. Let me be very clear that I have heard many of these things but hearing things in the media is not evidence. We follow due process at City Hall, we ensure that we are very straight forward, we on point in terms of accountability and transparency, but every single person deserves due process, including an elected official”.
The Mayor says he will not rely on the rumors circulating but on official information provided by the Immigration Department and the Councilor himself.
Mayor Darrel Bradley
“But you are correcting saying that you don’t know. So, what we will do is that we are awaiting the report itself. Based on the report and based on the report that we have been hearing in the media, there are certain additional questions that we could ask, including questions that we could ask to Councilor Chang himself when he returns…and based on that report and based on the information that we receive from Councilor Chang, then we will make action. We cannot act on things that are mentioned on the media, based on reports that have been indicated, we must act based on the report…based on information that is provided as a result of our inquiry including information that is obtained from Councilor Chang”.
The Councilor is due back on October 3.