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Contreras refuses to attend Special Select Committee hearing

Belmopan, May 29, 2024 — The Senate Special Select Committee postponed its seventh public hearing on the Portico Definitive Agreement after key witness Erwin Contreras, who signed the contentious document, declined to attend.

The committee, via public notice, underscored the importance of Contreras’ testimony, stating:

“The Committee is most disappointed at [Mr. Contreras’ decision not to attend as Mr. Contreras has already admitted that he signed the ‘Definative Agreement’, which committed the Government and the people of Belize to grant Portico financial concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars for 30 years.”

The Committee added, “Mr. Contreras is the only person and former Government Minister who can explain why he signed the Agreement.”

The Special Select Committee concluded its release with a plea to the former Minister: “The Committee hereby reaches out to Mr. Erwin Contreras to reconsider his decision bearing in mind he is being respectfully invited to attend.”

Authority of the Senate Select Committee

According to the Committee’s Terms of Reference (TOR), it has the authority "to require the attendance before the Committee of former Ministers of Government, current Ministers of Government, signatories of the agreement and/or those who may have information, by virtue of his office, which may be relevant to the inquiry, pursuant to section 61A(2)(g) of the Constitution of Belize."

While the Committee’s TOR cites section 61A(2)(g) of the Constitution, it is worth noting the specific language of that section, which reads:

“(2) The powers and functions of the Senate referred to in section (1) are as follows […]requiring the attendance before it of any Chief Executive Officer in a Government Ministry in respect of any matter of which he has knowledge by virtue of his office, or in respect of anything related to his office and the due execution of his duties.”

Apart from the fact that this section of the Constitution speaks to Chief Executive Officers (as opposed to ministers), it is noteworthy that this section of the Constitution covers those who currently hold such offices, a language which could present a legal question regarding the committee's authority to compel former officials.

In terms of summoning ministers, it is section 61A(2)(h) of the Constitution which reads: “requiring the attendance before any Committee of the Senate, of any Minister of Government.” Like Section 61A(2)(g), this part also uses language that appears to speak to current ministers as opposed to former office holders.

Former Minister Erwin Contreras

According to former prime minister and senior counsel, Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, specific ordinances of the legislature affords the Senate the powers to summon anyone, whether current or former officeholders; however, in Contreras case, certain ongoing legal matters provides him with a justifiable reason to not attend.

Scope of the Investigation

The Senate Select Committee’s terms of reference (TOR) include conducting an independent and impartial investigation into the signing of the Definitive Agreement, dated October 1, 2020, between the Government of Belize and Portico Enterprises Limited (DBA the Port of Magical Belize).

The investigation aims to determine if established procedures and investment policies were followed and to review all communications and documentation tied to the agreement.

The committee is also tasked with examining the advice and policy basis used by the Ministry of Finance, Economic Development, and Investment in preparing recommendations and draft legislation presented to the Cabinet.

Background on the Portico Definitive Agreement

The Definitive Agreement signed by Erwin Contreras, former minister of economic development under the Barrow Administration, has faced significant scrutiny and legal debate for several months.

Speaking with The Reporter last June, Former Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, who is also a senior counsel, argued that the agreement is unenforceable based on legal precedents, including Claim No. 404 of 2007.

Barrow asserted that government ministers, including the prime minister, cannot bind Parliament with such agreements, making the Portico document legally untenable.

Barrow cited a ruling by Justice Minnet Hafiz Bertram, which stated that any agreement that attempts to fetter the future power of the legislature to legislate is unenforceable.

The ruling emphasized that the executive branch cannot commit the legislature to specific actions, such as enacting or refraining from enacting legislation. This includes—as the Definitive Agreement attempted to do—agreements that seeks to bind Parliament to provide fiscal incentives to any project or developer.

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