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Can Senate Cmte. compel attendance? Former PM says in Contreras' case it's complicated

Former Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow emphasized that while attendance before the Senate is generally expected, former Minister Erwin Contreras' ongoing court cases justify his refusal to appear.

"Mr. Contreras is involved in lawsuits, which provide valid grounds for his decision," Barrow explained, noting the separation of powers and legal proceedings that protect individuals from prejudicing their defense.

Barrow pointed out that legislative privileges and immunities might allow for broader summoning powers, but compelling testimony from someone involved in legal proceedings remains complex.

"The Senate cannot force someone to testify if it risks affecting ongoing court cases," Barrow added. He highlighted that Contreras could legally refuse to answer questions that might influence his defense in court.

Barrow also referenced the Legislative Privileges and Immunities Ordinance, which provides the Senate with the power to summon witnesses generally. "Under the ordinance, the Senate can issue an invitation or summons to anyone, not just current officials," Barrow explained. "If ignored, the Senate can cause an officer of the law to arrest and detain the individual."

However, Barrow noted the complexity of forcing testimony. "Once before the Senate, a witness can refuse to answer questions on various grounds, including the risk of prejudicing ongoing legal proceedings," he said.

Readers may recall that the Port of Belize Limited (PBL) had notified that they plan to pursue legal action against the former minister, accusing him of “misfeasance in publish office” on account of his role in the Definitive Agreement.

The Portico Definitive Agreement, signed by Contreras in 2020, has faced extensive scrutiny. The agreement committed the government to significant financial concessions for Portico Enterprises Limited, raising concerns about procedural compliance and fiscal responsibility.

The Senate Select Committee's investigation aims to uncover the circumstances surrounding the agreement's signing and events since its signing, including it being picked up by the present Cabinet.

Albert Area Representative and former Chair of the Cabinet Sub-Committee for Investments, Hon. Tracy Panton, stressed that the agreement never came before the Committee during her tenure, as the project had several unresolved issues.

"This project had not completed the necessary steps to move from an MOU to a definitive agreement," she remarked, citing outstanding environmental and financial assessments.

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