SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Officials in the Turks and Caicos Islands have recovered $19.5 million and more than 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) of real estate as they continue to seize assets improperly obtained by corrupt politicians.
Thursday's announcement comes six months after the territory resumed self-government after three years of direct rule imposed by Britain due to a corruption scandal that led to the arrest of the island's jet-setting ex-premier in Brazil.
The assets seized include prime seafront property and land in Salt Cay that was projected to be the site of a high-end resort built by a developer who allegedly obtained special immigration status in exchange for a $1.6 million loan.
The amount of cash and property seized is expected to increase as courts rule on additional cases involving millions of dollars and more than 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of land identified as ill-gotten assets by the Edwards Wildman law firm contracted to help recover the property.
The firm's deputy managing partner, Laurence Harris, said most of the 62 civil cases currently open should be resolved by late summer, with four trials scheduled to start before the end of July.
He said the property may help the government work with developers to create projects that generate long-term revenues in the territory, a popular tourist destination and financial haven that lies southeast of Miami.
"Land is the island's primary resource," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "Any land that is recovered is potentially hugely valuable ... There are gorgeous beaches, beautiful shorelines ... When you sell land cheaply, you lose control over it."
A British-appointed commission reported in 2009 that it had found evidence of systematic corruption when it looked into allegations that local politicians were taking payoffs from developers and creating a "climate of fear" in the tiny British territory of about 47,000 people.
Some of the land was sold at low prices or given to politicians, Turks and Caicos Islands governor's spokesman Neil Smith said in a phone interview.
"There was a whole number of dodgy things that needed to be investigated," he said.
The premier at the time, Michael Misick, resigned after the commission released its report. Misick later vanished, only to be arrested Dec. 7 in Rio de Janeiro, where he awaits extradition. Authorities also are seeking to interview Miami developer Cem Kinay in the case, but have not located him.
The Turks and Caicos has struggled to recover financially after the corruption scandal and lavish spending by several politicians. In 2011, the territory received a $417 million bailout from the U.K. and its $70 million budget deficit has since been whittled down.
The government also is awaiting the start of criminal trials in the corruption case.
Thirteen people have been charged with corruption, including five former Cabinet ministers, four of them from Misick's administration. Two of the 13 have settled their cases after paying large fines, while the others await trial. The judicial process has been delayed because the suspects are seeking legal aid, Smith said.
"They want more public money to help defend themselves, which is ironic given the charges," he said.