Though government paid the United Kingdom-headquartered law firm Withers LLP $6.5 million for representation during the Commission of Inquiry, not all branches of government benefited from the firm’s services, according to the COI report.
Withers, for instance, didn’t represent the governors or other public officers whose positions were not aligned with elected ministers, including the registrar of interests, the auditor general, and the internal auditor, Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom wrote in the report.
“Each of them was also criticised by the elected ministers in very serious terms. Nor, so far as I am aware, did the representation offered by the [Inquiry Response Unit] (and, in particular, Withers, who comprised its majority) extend to those who were ministers in a previous government or to former public officers,” Sir Gary wrote. “It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that the primary role of Withers was to defend the interests of the elected ministers, which was vigorously and fully done.”
The total cost for hiring Feb. 28, 2022 was $6.5 million, according to the report.
Then-premier Andrew Fahie signed an initial contract dated Jan. 20 to June 3, the report states. The government then entered a second contract from June 15 to Oct. 30, and a third from Nov. 8 to Feb. 28, it adds.
Sir Gary wrote that it wasn’t for him to “comment on whether these contracts provided value for money.”
“However, the stark reality was that, following the applications for participant status made on behalf of the elected ministers, and certainly from the submission of their position statement on [ June 1], Withers was no longer in a position, as described in its contract, to represent ‘the government of the Virgin Islands,’” the commissioner wrote. “That term refers to all three branches under the Constitution of which the governor (as well as the House of Assembly) is one.”
The COI report also recounted shifting representation during the proceeding.
Withers — including Queen’s Counsel Sir Geoffrey Cox — advised the attorney general during the COI, Sir Gary explained.
At first, he added, the attorney general — with counsel from Withers and Sir Geoffrey — only represented three of the five Cabinet ministers, the Premier’s Office, and the Cabinet Office.
But May 7, the VI law firm Silk Legal filed a separate application asking to represent all 13 members of the House of Assembly, including the three ministers being represented by the attorney general and Withers, Sir Gary noted.
Then, on May 12, the attorney general asked to bring the two other ministers and the two junior ministers under her representation — a move that was green-lighted by the commissioner.
“The attorney general thus represented the whole of the elected government (although not its two backbenchers) throughout the COI, while Silk Legal represented six members of the House of Assembly together with the speaker,” Sir Gary wrote. “The representation from Silk Legal was provided by Richard Rowe, Daniel Fligelstone Davies and Denniston Fraser.”
Last year, controversy surrounded Sir Geoffrey, whose name was plastered in British tabloids in November for representing the VI government while serving as a member of the UK Parliament.
The Labour Party called for an investigation into a possible rule breach after Sir Geoffrey appeared remotely in the COI from his House of Commons office, but he later told the BBC that no investigation would be carried out.