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On eve of World Anti-Corruption Day, press raises alarm over ‘secrecy’ of unified company registries

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Posted: Thursday, December 8, 2022. 9:24 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: The unified press intends to complain to the Government over provisions in the Belize Companies Act and subsidiary regulations that limit public information available in the Belize Companies and Corporate Affairs Registry (BCCAR), a unity of the International Business Companies and local business and companies registry.

Couched in the guise of modernizing and computerizing the system, the result in terms of availability of information according to Channel 7 News Director Jules Vasquez is one of the most “retrograde and anti-public transparency maneuvers I have ever seen – and it was publicized, it happened in plain sight.” He added that the public nature of the companies and business registry was subsumed by the secretive International Business Companies regime – a trade-off of secrecy for modernity.

The Companies Act was revised and passed into law earlier this year. Section 57(3) of the subsidiary regulations to the Act provides that a person that is not a director or shareholder of a company and not otherwise authorized to seek out a full extract on a company may apply for a short extract as set out in Schedule 7 to the Regulations.

While Vasquez said attorneys have been privately complaining to him about the complications raised by the new system, the concern for the press is that information on directors and shareholders of companies, often including so-called “politically exposed persons”, is fully covered, which may encourage more corruption, not less, and those who have a right to know will never know. (Inquiries by members of the public used to cost $25 with an email request while searches at the Registry office in Belmopan were free of cost, subject to non-disclosure of biographical data from files and paying for copies from files, but the website for the system no longer mentions this).

KREM News Editor Marisol Amaya discussed her conversation today with Deputy Registrar Santiago Gonzalez and Director Claude Haylock and stated that they “are not seeing at this time or paying attention to the role of the media,” keeping the public informed.

As described by Amaya, the files as they existed tracked changes in directors and shareholders of companies so that verification of claims of sale of shares for example can be easier. Now, the short extract provided only the basic information and the contact of the registered agent whom the seeker of information must address for further information. “He is saying that we can discuss,” Amaya said of Gonzalez, “but it does not appear to me that they are willing any at all to consider giving the media access to everything we had before, and I do not think we should settle for anything less.”

Interestingly, the change to online service is in part to combat reports of corporate and identity theft, according to Gonzalez; he claimed persons stole Social Security numbers and other biographical data for fraudulent purposes – but no member of the press has been accused.

The new fees are a non-refundable application fee of US$500 (BZ$1,000) and an annual licence fee of US$1,500 (BZ$3,000) for an applicant sole practitioner, while for a legal entity, it is US$1,000 (BZ$2,000) non-refundable application fee and US$5,000 (BZ$10,000) annual licence fee, but Vasquez said these are “small potatoes” for would-be hustlers to claim legitimacy.

The Bar Association is said to have made complaints privately, but according to Vasquez are not prepared to “rock the boat” publicly for various reasons. We understand that objections had been raised prior to the passing of the Companies Act.

“Perfect secrecy – public companies are now totally secret. Do what you like – the public, the press, the media will never find out. Noh worry ‘bout put your sweetheart’s name, your son-in-law’s name on the company; put your name, Mr Minister!” Jules summarized.

And it’s not a good look for Belize internationally, Amaya added, when the current movement is away from secrecy and ‘tax havens’ for our companies to be shielded. She cited Goodlee Limited, the heretofore silent partner in the Brads Gaming Company lottery franchise that was revealed a decade ago and based in Saint Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean. She noted that the Government still hasn’t been able to find out who are the beneficial owners of that company – using taxpayers’ money – but appears to have learned the wrong lesson from it.

The Government’s incentive is to “be in step with the global trend toward transparency,” according to Jules, and to uphold the regulations they have been forced to implement for anti-money laundering and terrorist financing regimes while noting the case of the Panama Papers and similar exposes by the International Coalition of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Journalists meeting today have committed to sign the draft letter to the Prime Minister as Minister of Finance to show unity on this issue.

 

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