When the Commission of Inquiry asked Premier Andrew Fahie on Monday about his role in the controversial Neighbourhood Partnership Project from 2008 to 2010, he repeatedly deflected responsibility to late former premier Ralph O’Neal. Though Mr. Fahie at the time headed the Ministry of Education and Culture — which oversaw the NPP and organiser Claude Skelton-Cline — he described Mr. O’Neal as the real force behind the initiative.
“It was a project the premier kept a keen eye on, and although it was under my ministry, he would have been more knowledgeable,” Mr. Fahie said of the programme, which ultimately fell apart amid allegations of undelivered support and lack of accountability. “He’s the one that brought the project, so he was spearheading the whole thing.”
Also during his COI testimony on Monday and Tuesday, Mr. Fahie addressed Mr. Skelton-Cline’s more recent contracts, as well as separate accusations that an attempt to grant hundreds of belongership applications shortly before Mr. O’Neal left office in 2011 was unlawful.
Many of the questions the COI put to the premier centred around a report by the auditor general, which alleged that the NPP had produced limited results and failed to properly document how it spent nearly $700,000 paid to Mr. Skelton-Cline’s consultancy over the course of about two years.
In response, Mr. Fahie often read from a document that he had previously submitted in response to the COI’s potential criticisms, warning that he didn’t have a clear memory of the “13-year-old project” and saying many of the files related to it were likely destroyed by the 2017 hurricanes or subsequent mouldy storage.
Asked about the origin of the project, Mr. Fahie said Mr. O’Neal initially referred it to the Ministry of Education and Culture to address increased gang activity and other concerns for the territory’s youth.
He also claimed that when Mr. Skelton-Cline presented the project around 2008, he was “then unknown to me.”
COI Counsel Bilal Rawat asked for clarification if that was the first time the two had ever met, but the premier didn’t directly answer the question, instead complaining about the short amount of time he had to respond to the COI’s warning letter.
“All I remember from that presentation is that Mr. Skelton-Cline appeared to have considerable and impressive experience in the United States of America initiating and managing projects aimed at turning around the lives of alienated and vulnerable young people,” Mr. Fahie read from his statement. “At that time, the Virgin Islands was experiencing just such a growing problem with our youth, and it had become a permanent political issue. The then-premier subsequently informed me that he wished the services of Mr. Skelton-Cline to be retained in connection to the NPP.”
He claimed to have minimal involvement in the contract negotiations but said he did help publicly promote the programme in its early days.
Of the four contracts signed between 2008 and 2010, he said that either the then-premier or his permanent secretary would have approved them all.
It wasn’t until mid-2010 that Mr. Fahie became aware of the project’s problems, when he “began hearing from social and church contacts, and also members of the House of Assembly that there was some dissatisfaction,” Mr. Rawat summarised from his statement.
“So that was some time into the project, given the first contract was signed in late 2008,” Mr. Rawat said. “It was only in the very last part of the project you began hearing these murmurs of dissatisfaction: Is that right?”
Mr. Fahie responded that he couldn’t recall the details, but that his permanent secretary had reassured him that “although there were criticisms, many churches had shared their great satisfaction with the project.”
At the COI’s prompting, Mr. Fahie read more from his written response to the COI’s criticisms, which made clear that the ministry had not received required progress reports — and that despite multiple requests from the permanent secretary about details of the allocated funds, Mr. Skelton-Cline’s firm never provided them.
“Eventually, I recall, I spoke to the late premier to explain that given the absence of compliance with the ministry’s requests and the increasing political opposition of the project, I would have no choice but to terminate the contract,” Mr. Fahie read from his written response, though he clarified that the ultimate decision was up to Mr. O’Neal.
His recommendation to terminate was based on the firm’s lack of accountability, not the programme’s performance, he said.
Mr. Rawat later quoted Mr. Skelton-Cline’s assertion from a hearing held last week that the project was ended because of political fighting, not because of his failure to provide progress reports — a claim Mr. Skelton-Cline labelled “bogus.”
“That’s what he said?” the premier asked.
The premier did, however, agree that Mr. Skelton-Cline was a “victim of politics” from both the opposition and government leading up to the 2011 election, when he ran unsuccessfully with the National Democratic Party.
Mr. Fahie said one rumour at the time was that Mr. Skelton-Cline intended to run with the main opposition party, and another rumour said that he planned to replace a government member on the ticket.
“And that then led to hostility against him?” Mr. Rawat asked.
“Any elected official anywhere in the world, when they hear persons threatening their seat, they become concerned,” Mr. Fahie replied.
On Tuesday, the premier addressed concerns about Mr. Skelton-Cline’s other government contracts to consult on various initiatives mostly focused on generating revenue for the territory.
The first six-month contract of about $16,000 monthly started shortly after the Virgin Islands Party came to power in 2019. He also secured 12-month contracts beginning in September 2019 and September 2020, which were worth about $12,000 monthly.
“At the heart of the potential criticisms is that none of the three contracts that were entered into with [Grace Consulting] resulted in a benefit to the public, or at best no substantial benefit to the public compared to the sums expended,” Mr. Rawat said.
Mr. Fahie said in his written response that the criticism misunderstood that Mr. Skelton-Cline was engaged as a sort of special advisor — an “essential tool of modern government.”
Based on a proposal by Mr. Skelton-Cline shortly after the 2019 elections to be his “strategy advisory,” Mr. Fahie said he satisfied himself that the consultant was in line with his aspirations and then instructed officials to request a written proposal.
Sir Gary asked whether the premier considered the history with the Neighbourhood Partnership Project before awarding the consultancy contracts, but Mr. Fahie said the auditor general’s report was never officially published and therefore didn’t factor into his decision.
He also noted that Mr. Skelton-Cline was not tasked with managing public money other than his own salary.
The premier also claimed that the Covid-19 lockdown and other pandemic-related problems had affected Mr. Skelton-Cline’s ability to carry out the contracts, and he therefore felt that reports delivered in June and December 2020 were “reasonable.”
Mr. Fahie added that he found the consultant’s support valuable, considered it unfair to hold him to the original targets of the contract, and decided to renew the contract.
Though Mr. Skelton-Cline’s latest contract has ended, Mr. Fahie wrote in his response to the COI’s criticisms that he is currently considering renewing Mr. Skelton-Cline’s services with an eye to re-appointing him under the newly designated “ministerial political adviser” position.
Last July, Cabinet approved the hiring of up to nine such advisers to be paid up to $120,000 annually to aid ministers.
Sir Gary asked if such advisors would need to have specific deliverables outlined in their contracts, and the premier said they would simply have to fulfil advisory duties.
Mr. Fahie explained that in 2019 there wasn’t a template for contracting someone in such an advisory role, which he likened to the role of similar ministerial advisors routinely appointed by politicians in the United Kingdom.
The deliverables outlined in Mr. Skelton-Cline’s contract, he added, were included so public officers would have some measure to assess his services considering the nonpartisan officials wouldn’t be able to gauge his success in pushing forward a specific party’s ambitions — a duty that wasn’t explicitly laid out in the contract.
“There was a structural issue with the contracts that I was concerned about but was told not to worry about,” Mr. Fahie said. “But now it’s time that the concern has come home to roost.”
When Mr. Rawat inquired about the section of the second and third contracts that instructed Mr. Skelton-Cline to pursue revenue-generating initiatives worth $5 million within the 12 months, the premier pointed to the medicinal marijuana legislation that passed the House of Assembly but never received assent from the governor.
Mr. Fahie projected that initiative alone will bring in more than $5 million, but it is in the governor’s hands for now.
After the pandemic hit, Mr. Skelton-Cline’s work largely shifted to issues like encouraging businesses to retain staff, according to the premier.
“He was instrumental in a lot of things that we are doing to keep us afloat economic-wise with the private sector,” the premier said.
Mr. Fahie admitted that the terms of the third contract should have been updated to reflect the shift in responsibilities, but time constraints meant many expiring contracts were simply signed again.
He added that he hopes the new template for advisor contracts will make it easier to more accurately reflect duties moving forward.
“I don’t see this problem popping up again,” Mr. Fahie said.
Also on Monday, the COI addressed concerns about whether government leaders broke the law by not following the proper procedures for approving hundreds of belongership applications shortly before the general election in 2011.
Cabinet at the time attempted to grant belonger status to 224 people even though the Immigration Board never considered their applications and made recommendations, according to reports issued by the internal auditor in 2012 and 2014.
The group included 190 people who didn’t submit applications, 32 people with pending applications, one person who already had belonger status, and one who applied only after their status was already granted, according to Mr. Rawat.
The COI’s warning letter to Mr. Fahie raised the “potential criticism” that Cabinet acted unlawfully in granting the statuses without complying with the Immigration and Passport Act.
Mr. Fahie, who at the time was the minister of education and culture, again said he struggled to recall details of events that happened a decade ago.
“As far as I can recall, the then-premier, the late Ralph T. O’Neal, had been concerned that the slow process of the Immigration Board had resulted in a very large backlog of persons who were frustrated and complaining that they were unable to be considered for belonger status by the Immigration Board,” Mr. Fahie stated in a written response read out by Mr. Rawat.
The premier said he could not recall bringing any names to Mr. O’Neal, who he claimed invited such recommendations.
Between April and October 2011, Cabinet granted numerous applications, but to his recollection the then-attorney general never advised that those grants were unlawful and the then-governor never raised any objections, Mr. Fahie said.
“However, sometime after the Cabinet’s consideration of those persons, I believe the AG did advise that the grants were unlawful and as far as I can recollect, the decisions were not confirmed,” he wrote. “I understood that these persons’ applications were then later processed by the Immigration Board in the normal way. However, by then, I was out of government.”
He flatly denied that the belongership decisions were made for “electoral reasons.”
Mr. Rawat then asked how giving belonger status to 190 people who hadn’t even applied would reduce the backlog of applications. Mr. Fahie said he couldn’t answer considering that he was a young minister busy with other matters at the time.
The COI, he added, would have to ask the late Mr. O’Neal.
Sir Gary asked if Mr. Fahie was even aware that those candidates hadn’t applied, and he said he couldn’t remember.
Mr. Fahie then detailed at length the complexities of regulating citizenship in the territory.
Asked if any safeguards are in place to prevent another deviation from the law, Mr. Fahie said Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley would have to answer.
Mr. Rawat then read from the June 2012 report from the internal auditor: “It is our opinion that the practice whereby Cabinet approves status for individuals who were not vetted by the established process creates an environment in which favouritism, cronyism, and corruption can flourish.”
Mr. Rawat asked the premier if he agreed.
“Categorically not,” he answered. “The systems of government have been non-functional in some areas because of the lack of capacity for quite a while.”
Sir Gary asked then if decision makers are bound by the law, and Mr. Fahie responded that Mr. O’Neal was simply trying to “right an injustice” for contributing members of society.
“If you have a 21st Century public service, then expediency would be the order of the day,” he added.