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The Commission of Inquiry and the tale of the Toyota Tacoma

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Posted: Monday, March 1, 2021. 6:22 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Friday morning was enthralling for opponents of the United Democratic Party (UDP) and mortifying for its supporters, who were forced to listen to hours of testimony from their deputy leader and former Deputy Prime Minister, Hugo Patt, and others, unraveling a tale of ‘hand wash hand’ beyond apparent imagination.

To recap in the shortest space possible: The Corozal North area representative asked his outgoing boss, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, to purchase his assigned 2020 Toyota Tacoma from the Government of Belize – but he didn’t have the money to hand. That vehicle, as it turned out, was never actually sold to Patt. First, it was purchased by one of his friends for sixty-five thousand dollars. Then, for reasons not yet clear, the 2020 Toyota Tacoma changed hands multiple times more.

The financier of the purchase, Zhourong “Kelvin” Li, around the same time acquired multiple pieces of land across northern Belize and in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye.

And Commission chairman, Senior Counsel Andrew Marshalleck, told reporters in a press briefing after Friday’s testimony that the Chinese businessman was clearly hit with a case of “selective memory” with regard to his many land transactions: “He had indicated and sought advice from his lawyer whether he should answer; he indicated he didn’t want to answer on a number of occasions, because he preferred to keep the names of the people private. When I insisted he answer, in the end, he says he doesn’t remember.”

But nonetheless, he feels the link between Li as financier and Patt as Minister has been established, despite the men insisting in separate testimony that they barely knew each other. “The connections are between the people and that particular vehicle [which] belonged to the Ministry of Natural Resources, and the players are all players that deal with land. The evidence speaks for itself.” He added that the Commission’s digging helps everyone make their own conclusions.

As for the financing trail, here was how Marshalleck explained it: “Hugo Patt says he borrowed the money from Mr. Herrera; Mr. Herrera says he borrowed the money from Mr. Li. Mr. Li gave instructions to Mr [Emil Torres] to pay $50,000 toward the purchase price for Mr. Hugo Patt’s car and also gave instructions to Miss Sandra from Marine Services to pay $15,000 toward Mr. Hugo Patt’s car. The money for Hugo Patt’s car came from Mr. Li’s instructions, and he says he did that because he was loaning the money to Mr. Herrera. And Mr. Herrera, we haven’t spoken to him yet so he hasn’t said anything, but Mr. Patt says he borrowed the money from Mr. Herrera.” (Torres has spoken to a media house, but not to the Commission).

Marshalleck told us that the sale was “one of the most convoluted” being investigated, but only the first and that the documentation shows historically the number of people involved, but not their specific usage. One of the key links, Juvencio Herrera, “lawyered up” about an hour before the hearing and will give his version of events at its next hearing.

In the afternoon, the Commission called four senior government officials – Accountant General Anna Bennett; Auditor General Dorothy Bradley; one Alfaro of the Valuation Unit, Customs and Excise Department; and former Comptroller of Customs and Excise Colin Griffith.

Accountant General Bennett has been tasked, after municipal elections, to list all the vehicles sold in the period, the price they were sold for, and what the Government originally paid for them. The Auditor-General had been asked for a similar list with which the Commission will reconcile its other information.

Griffith and Alfaro confirmed that the policy of the Ministry of Finance to use Customs valuations as the basis for sale bears no actual relationship to the price one would pay on the open market.

Marshalleck warned that despite Friday’s revelations, the Commission is not concerned about land sales generally under Patt’s tenure, merely with the transactions identified as connected to the players in the sale of the Tacoma. However, he noted that the Commission would be remiss in its duty if it did not investigate further. As Marshalleck put it, “When you are able to apply for a dozen pieces of land and get approval and get titles in one day, let me know how you do that, please?”

He also posited a scenario where a bribe for facilitating land transfers was being washed through the vehicle purchase, though was careful to emphasize that the Commission has not adopted this belief.

On the matter of footage allegedly showing Li and Patt meeting at the Lands Department, Commissioner Luke Martinez said he would not make the footage public (he was unable to show it to Li during his testimony).

The Commission next meets on March 10.

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