As much as $5 billion missing from Turks and Caicos treasury, says British minister

On Thursday, Bellingham, who is currently visiting the TCI convened a press conference and delivered a comprehensive formal speech.

In response to media questions, Bellingham said that, according to Jon Llewellyn, who was sent to the TCI as a land adviser, between $2.5 and $5 billion has gone missing from the TCI treasury as a result of the government led by former premier Michael Misick undervaluing land that was sold during that period.

Bellingham went further, saying that if the actual value of the land sold had reached the treasury it could have been invested in infrastructure to serve the peoples of the islands.

Clayton Greene, the current leader of Misick’s Progressive National Party (PNP), has reacted to this statement, admitting that there was much wrongdoing in the previous administration but that he does not believe the treasury was “raided” to this extent.

However, Greene, an attorney at law and the Speaker of the House during the last government, reportedly represented a buyer who purchased 2,500 acres of Crown land for only $15 million. The land located on Middle Caicos has been conservatively appraised to be worth at least $250 million.

Greene went on to say that the PNP had a policy of making sure that belongers were part of every development.

In the Middle Caicos land deal, which was kept under wraps until revealed by the media, 15 supporters of the PNP government were reportedly given small parcels of the land. However, when the special investigation and prosecution team (SIPT) interviewed these individuals, several denied knowledge that they had applied for the land or were aware they were participants in the deal. In one case, a source said a North Caicos resident was paid $25,000 for signing his name.

Of the low $15 million selling price, it appears that only $7.5 million actually reached the treasury, with the balance due on February 11 of this year. However, the developer making the purchase has been in financial difficulties, losing his Miami office building in a recent foreclosure action. SIPT is reportedly now closing in on a similar land scam in South Caicos.

Douglas Parnell, leader of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), also expressed the view that the amount said to be missing from the treasury was not that high and was exaggerated (by Llewellyn).

In the meantime, it is still unclear what the status of Llewellyn’s mandate is. It has been reported that he has overlooked thousands of acres of Crown land, of which some portion had been obtained by one civil servant from Middle Caicos — the same PNP supporter that was also reportedly involved in the 2,500 acre sale.

Perhaps the most important portion of Bellingham’s formal speech, and one of interest to islanders in recent days, was on the subject of finance. According to the minister, the TCI government’s budget will be balanced by 2012/2013. However, this observation runs counter to a statement delivered by the permanent secretary of finance Delton Jones, who only this week predicted the budget may not be balanced until 2020.

It therefore remains unclear who is correct.

Governor Gordon Wetherell, who was also on Bellingham’s conference panel and who chose to retain Jones – who was appointed by the previous PNP administration – as the permanent secretary of finance, was tight lipped on this subject.

There has been continuing concern expressed by residents and the media on the performance of Jones. The minister seemed to recognise the weakness in the financial ministry, saying, “We want to continue our work… to strengthen public financial management, economic planning and good governance arrangements where this is necessary.”

Also present on the panel was British economic adviser Caroline Gardner, who is serving as the minister of finance.

Bellingham said Britain is paying close attention to the TCI and he indicated the small $9 million deficit predicted for fiscal year 2011/2012 is on track.

The balanced budget prediction appears to be good news for local politicians, as they will have either a balanced financial platform to govern from or they will have a platform from which to demand assistance from Britain.

Also well received locally was the news that Bellingham will be traveling around the islands reviewing various projects. There is, however, disappointment from the largest island, Middle Caicos, which according to the minister’s speech will be ignored. This was not well received, in that Bellingham will visit the tiny island of Salt Cay, while bypassing Middle Caicos

The causeway linking Middle to North Caicos, and beyond, is most seriously damaged and in danger of becoming impassable. It remains a vital link to future development for the out islands. This causeway currently serves as a lifeline for residents of Middle Caicos and has been ignored by the Interim Government. Also, the unfinished government building on Middle Caicos is a current monument to what Bellingham described as in his speech as “mismanagement” by the former PNP government.

This large structure has its walls completed. Sources have indicated that the interim government is exploring taking the “hold” off the building contract to at least install the roof.

This building, with a rebuilt causeway providing access, could possibly house the North/Middle Caicos government functions, which are all now in rental facilities in North Caicos.

Residents say the clinic improvement expansion projects for both Middle and North Caicos appear to be stalled and need review by the minister as well.

Bellingham also addressed the milestones he set down that will lead to elections, the most important of these being the recently negotiated Constitution, which is now being expedited through the process leading to the required Order in Council.

The next milestone to be addressed, said the minister, will be an ordinance setting out electoral reform. While the interim government set up and trained census takers, residents have been continuing to question why the Wetherell-led government never took the census. With population numbers available and permanent residencies established, it was hoped that an accurate census would facilitate new constituency boundaries.

The process of completing high level investigations and potential prosecutions was never proclaimed as a milestone by Bellingham. However, the minister repeated what the Governor has often said: the SIPT is far advanced and it is anticipated that the civil recovery team will be able to assist the TCI government by returning assets allegedly improperly removed, presumably by individuals connected with the former PNP government.

The consensus of opinion in the TCI seems to be that until the prosecutions either go forward or are dismissed a proper election cannot go forward.

The milestone dealing with the formal path to belongership was also dealt with by the minister.

On this issue, PNP Leader Greene expressed concern that, while he celebrated the idea of a defined path to belongership, he was concerned that Britain was opening up the possibility to a plurality of people becoming belongers, which could dilute the native electorate.

Bellingham expressed gratitude to outgoing Governor Wetherell. However, Wetherell has continued to be accused locally of a lack of transparency as it pertains to the approval of the controversial health care plan and his recent refusal to reveal the details of a possibly modified development plan with the Shore Club development, which could prove to be the only significant new construction to come to the TCI under British direct rule.

At least some portion of the Shore Club land passed through the hands of former premier Misick’s pilot, Ritchie Arthur, and planning director, Clyde Robinson. Land records also indicate a former PNP cabinet minister’s wife may have been involved in a portion of the development’s land.

When asked about the new agreement, the Governor said that the developer would not sign the agreement if its details were released to the public.

Wetherell is due to leave the TCI next month and newly appointed governor, D.R. ‘Ric’ Todd takes over in September.

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