The recent passport scandal at the Ministry of Immigration was highlighted at the Sitting of the House of Representatives. By now viewers are fully aware of what has transpired – that ultimately led to the resignation of now former Minister of State Elvin Penner and the recommended suspension of three public officers within the Immigration Department, pending an ongoing investigation. But there has now been a nationwide call for an investigation into the Nationality Department. As the South Korean fugitive Kim Won Hong who had been sitting in Taiwan jail cell when the fraudulent passport was issued, had to have acquired Belizean nationality, in order for him to obtain a Belizean passport. On Thursday, PlusNews got a copy of the nationality certificate which includes Minister Penner’s signature, as well as the signature of Data Entry Clerk Omar Phillips. Well it all came to a head on Friday, when Leader of the Opposition the Hon. Francis Fonseca brought up the matter.
Hon. Francis Fonseca- Leader of the Opposition
“…a Belize passport to one …to a wealthy South Korean national, who is currently in prison in Taiwan; and this passport was issued as we understand, on September 9th, 2013. When this individual who is the bearer-the recipient of the passport could not have possibly been in Belize, and as far as we are aware, there is no evidence to suggest that this individual ever foot…put foot in Belize, and this past 4th, Mr. Speaker, was apparently and allegedly delivered to Taiwan by a member of the Belize City Council. In fact, it was reported that it was the Deputy Mayor of Belize City himself, Mr. Eric Chang who delivered that passport to Taiwan and to the individual who paid for the passport; and Mr. Eric Chang, the Deputy Mayor of Belize City has to our knowledge…the best of our knowledge, not yet returned to Belize, and so, I don’t know if he is a Part of the ongoing in-depth investigation, what is taking place. They have been dealing with the passport side of the equation if you like, the passport…but nothing has been done in terms of the nationality section of the department, pretending that that did not take place so far. Let’s fix it, let’s put together a bi-partisan committed that can look at it, involve other people from the social sector, involve other people from outside”…
Now, Elvin Penner, who is still a member of the House of Representatives was not in attendance at Friday’s meeting and so the Prime Minister, the Hon. Dean Barrow hit back at Fonseca, who charged that he has been quite about the entire incident.
Prime Minister of Belize- Mr. Dean Oliver Barrow
“…and I feel extremely sympathetic. It’s a matter of great regret to me that Ms. Neal should have been suspended. I am assured by the Minister that Miss Neal’s suspension comes not in consequence of any suspicion, not even the slightest suspicion that she was involved in anything remotely corrupt; it was just a matter of Miss Neal as the supervisor, not having dotted an eye or crossed a T and it seems, the feeling was that she will have to say why there were those administrative omissions. Whatever Honorable Penner’s involvement was, ultimately, the people in the Passport Section had the duty to ensure that everything was in order, to ensure that the applicant for that passport appeared in front of them and had his picture taken. No Minister had any authority to override those requirements. He doesn’t issue the passport but he signs the Nationality Certificate. And in this case, the Nationality Certificate that was involved in the whole chain of events that sawed this gentleman if I can call him that, or this South Korean national, obtained the Belize passport. That Nationality Certificate was signed by Honourable Penner. Therefore, how are you going to look at the officers in the Nationality Section? They didn’t do anything except to provide the file in the normal course when the Minister called for the file; they didn’t have to sign the Nationality Certificate. So, that is the reason why there is no focus on the Nationality Section in a way that can see te suspension of any of the officers there. Hon. Penner said he signed the Certificate without dating it, something that I often do. And so, the question of who backdate it, that Certificate remains very much in issue. There can be no question in my mind of charging the Minister or the ex-minister in any criminal way, because in the face of it all appeared to be in order with respect to the Nationality Certificate, absent this issue of the date, and whether you believe him or not that he didn’t put in the date of April 22nd, whatever it was, you will never be able to establish that in fact he did it, let them on that side tell me when it is that any of their Prime Ministers has ever acted against their Ministers”?
In relation to the three officers who have been recommended for suspension, the Public Service Union continues to defend the two data entry clerks and their supervisor, while they call for criminal charges against Minister Elvin Penner. The PSU says it”We acknowledge the first step of swift action, resulting in the Minister of State’s resignation from Cabinet. We await the next steps which should include the intervention of the Director of Public Prosecution and we expect charges to be levied against the Minister of State.” The union says it is willing and able to be a part of reforming/enhancing all areas where weakness and political interference is identified.