The Investment Committee of the Social Security Board (SSB) has approved loans to two companies based in the banana and citrus belt in the Stann Creek District. They are Meridian Enterprises Limited and Diverse Investments Limited. But behind the company names, critics see the moving shadow of John Zabaneh. Viewers will recall that, in August of 2012, Zabaneh along with 2 others were targeted by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control under the Kingpin Act. Since then, while there have been no criminal charges laid, banks and credit unions in Belize have reportedly cut business ties with his companies. The chairman of the Social Security Board, Douglas Singh told PlusNews that the Board has decided to proceed with the loan, although not directly. Sing says that Zabaneh himself is not a party to the transactions with the two companies, and even if he were, he faces no criminal charges in Belize.
Douglas Singh, Chairman of Social Security Board – “I don’t think that we do that kind of a security background check to the extent of checking to see what somebody did in the 1980’s or 1970’s or 1960’s. But I believe that that individual owns perhaps one share, a minority share holder in the company. The majority share holder in the company is Ms. Mirtle Sheeran. Ms. Myrtle Sheeran is also the owner of the properties that are being provided. So, whether he is a nominee share holder for practical purposes is neither here or there. The bottom line is, there are many people – Well, I won’t even go in that direction because I think if you decide to throw stones, you can throw stones at just about anyone. The concern in this particular area wasn’t Mr. Horst, I think, it was Mr. Zabaneh. The board was concerned that Mr. Zabaneh was a party to the loan. Mr. Zabaneh is one of those people that is listed on a website and that sanctions have been applied against the United States Government. That, I don’t believe is the situation with Mr. Horst and probably not your cousin who may have been convicted of something too. We wouldn’t want to discriminate just about everybody who may have faced some allegations or convictions. But we certainly want to respect certain other initiatives and I think that it’s fair enough to tell you that the details are what the details are. Mr. Zabaneh is not a party to this loan as a borrower, as a shareholder of the company and as a charrette or a guarantee provider.”
According to Singh, Zabaneh was stopped from providing security for the loans as originally planned, citing the sanctions.
Douglas Singh – “If you look at Intelligence Database you’ll probably find all kinds of links but links may not be sufficient enough, conviction should be. – Mr. Schoenhoff, I have no idea but we know that Mr. Zabaneh was on a list that was made public and that is why we dealt with that concern when evaluating that particular loan. I will tell you that in the on-set when the loan was considered, there were properties as security being offered by Mr. Zabaneh and so the Social Security Board says it will not deal with anything that involves him being a borrower and providing security for us. So, security was provided by Ms. Sheeran. “
Reporter – “But then, Sir, that brings back the question again of the moving hand in the background.”
Douglas Singh – “But Sir, how can I know that and how can you know that? Can I ask you a question though? Do you know that for a fact? That there is a moving hand in the background and whose hand it is. It’s the same circumstance that we have, Sir. And so you can’t put a responsibility on us that you yourself as reporter would be able unable to verify.”
What ultimately swayed the board, according to Singh, was the chance to further invest in the productive banana and citrus industries.
Douglas Singh – “That’s entirely possible but when an institution gives a loan it gives it on several basis – it gives it on its ability to recover, whether or not it’s a good project, whether or not the security is there in the event of any default. We are pleased to say that the value of the security is far in excess of the value of the loan. The banana and citrus companies who have been there for a while and who have a history of productivity, the banana, I believe is the largest banana farm in this country owned by Myrtle Sheeran. The citrus farm is one of the largest producing citrus farms in Belize. Between two of them during regular season they employ over 320 people. During the harvesting season the number goes far in excess of that. Those are important industries relative to the productivity in this country. And so, all those were part of the consideration made. Risk is always an issue. And in the evaluation of the owner or anybody who may be behind it, risk is an issue. That was evaluated and it was evaluated quite clearly and intensively to determine that at the end of the day if there is any default, Social Security – tax payer’s dollars are secure. And that’s the most important part of it. But, as I said, the country benefits, the industry benefits.”
The SSB’s internal background checks do not catch any possible discrepancies, but Singh says, he does not know this for sure. Nontheless, he is of the opinion that everyone deserves a chance to be productive, even past alleged criminals. The Board will be repaid through the Banana Growers Association (BGA) and Citrus Products of Belize Limited (CPBL) of which Singh is a director.