claude skelton-cline radio
On an April 27 broadcast of his talk show, government consultant Claude Skelton-Cline read two letters he said he had received from the commission of inquiry requesting details of his recent government contracts. (SCREENSHOT: ZBVI/FACEBOOK)

The United Kingdom commission of inquiry has asked government consultant Claude Skelton-Cline to turn over all documents related to his contracts with the government, he said on an April 27 broadcast of his talk show “Honestly Speaking.”

In protesting the request, Mr. SkeltonCline insisted that the contracts  are public information, but the Beacon has  been unable to obtain them in spite of multiple requests over  more than two years.

During the talk show last week, the consultant read what he said was the entire text of two letters he received from Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom and Secretary Steven Chandler on April 7 and April 22. As he did so, Mr. Skelton-Cline attacked the inquiry as a remnant of colonialism and “a violation of basic fundamental human democratic rights.”

The first letter, he said, requested that he provide details of any arrangement between government and “you or any company and/or business with which you are connected, for example as employee, director, shareholder, investor, owner, [or] for whom you act or have acted as a consultant advisor whether  paid or unpaid.”

The letter sought “voluntary disclosure of information,” but it also stated that the commissioner “has the powers of the judge of the High Court in respect of calling for the production of documents,” he said, referencing a power under Section 10 of the COI Act.

The letter, Mr. SkeltonCline added, also stated that the commissioner’s “hope is that you will be willing to comply with the request in this letter, but if you are unwilling to comply, could you please give your reasons for noncompliance.”

More specifics

The second letter, dated April 22, requested specific details of any  arrangement between the government and Mr. Skelton-Cline’s company, Grace Consultants, over the past two years, he said.

For instance, the letter requested all correspondence related to such arrangements, including tender documents and electronic correspondence such as emails, texts and WhatsApp messages, according to the consultant. It also requested copies of all documents relating to any payments government made to the company.

If he no longer retained documents, the letter requested that he confirm what happened to that material — and if it was destroyed, when it was destroyed, he said.

He went on to say that the letter also asked him to confirm the nature and content of any documents no longer available, the date of the documents, who prepared or issued them, and to whom they were sent.

Additionally, the letter requested that he confirm the nature and content of any correspondence no longer available, including the dates, the identities of participants, and the means of the correspondence.

‘Public document’

After reading the letters aloud, Mr. Skelton-Cline expressed confusion over the request. “My contract is a public document registered at the High Court,” he said, adding, “Every piece of information regarding the scope of works [and] the delivery of services for that contract has been given to the government via the Ministry of Finance and/or the Premier’s Office. … What I find curious is why would the COI be corresponding with me regarding government’s documents, a contract issued by government, when in fact all of these items are in the possession of the government. I didn’t engage the government: The government engaged me. I am a private citizen with a private company.”

The Beacon, however, has been unable to obtain a copy of any of Mr. Skelton-Cline’s contracts with the current government. This reporter requested copies of the contracts from the High Court Registry on Monday, but staff there said no such contracts could be located, and
that the only document apparently in the registry under Mr. Skelton-Cline’s name was a 2020 “release from bill of sale” from the National Bank of the Virgin Islands for a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

In recent years, the Beacon also has made other unsuccessful attempts to obtain copies of Mr. Skelton-Cline’s consultancy contracts from him as well as Premier Andrew Fahie, Communications Director Arliene Penn, and Chief Information Officer Desiree Smith. None of them has responded to the requests.

This week, Mr. Skelton-Cline did not respond to multiple messages requesting an interview and requesting copies of the COI letters and his contracts. The COI also did not immediately respond to a request from the Beacon to address Mr. Skelton-Cline’s remarks.

Consulting lawyers

Currently, Mr. Skelton-Cline is consulting “several” lawyers on his options to respond to the COI request, he said, adding that one of the lawyers suggested that the COI Act is too broad.

“This very act is against all natural justice,” he continued. “It’s a violation of basic fundamental human democratic  rights. I’ve shared with you that this document is a political document that has some legal clothes on, where the [United  Kingdom] can unilaterally do whatever they want to their former colonies, territories or whatever they want to call us now.”

Public service

Mr. Skelton-Cline’s dealings with government date back at least to 2009, when he was contracted to launch the Virgin Islands Neighbourhood Partnership Project.

The programme — which was first announced by Mr. Fahie, who was then the minister of education and culture — was designed to assist at-risk youths by providing grants to churches and similar organisations.

However, the programme was halted less than two years later amid questions about what return the territory saw from the $571,800 officials said had been spent on it.

Reports obtained by the Beacon suggested that of $348,400 officials said was spent on the programme in 2009, its first year, less than 17 cents of every dollar went to grants to religious institutions. And, the reports suggested, more than half of the funds spent in 2009 went to  overhead expenses.

Controversy continued to dog Mr. Skelton-Cline during his 2013-2015 tenure as managing director at the BVI Ports Authority.

The pier park project, which he helped lead, was applauded by government leaders at the time, but it also drew criticism for cost overruns exceeding $30 million and lost tax revenue resulting from missed construction target dates.

After the project, Mr. Skelton-Cline’s contract as managing director was not renewed, and in 2016 he unsuccessfully sued the government
over that decision.

Later, a government-contracted review of the pier park project released in January 2019 found that the BVIPA had repeatedly violated its own procurement procedures, which themselves did not fully accord with the law, and did not produce several of the documents that the reviewers requested.

Prior consulting

In April 2019, less than two  months after Mr. Fahie’s Virgin Islands Party came to power, Mr.  Skelton-Cline’s firm Grace Consultants was hired by government.

At the time, the premier said Mr. Skelton-Cline would work on a wide range of projects over a six-month period.

As part of this $98,000 no-bid contract — just shy of the $100,000 threshold that requires a tender process or a Cabinet waiver — Mr. Skelton-Cline was charged with advising on the creation of a “climate resilience and renewable energy unit;” leading negotiations on the development of Prospect Reef; establishing new terms of services from the territory’s telecoms providers and a new cruise line berthing agreement; and helping to execute the premier’s “1,000 Jobs in 1,000 Days” programme, government stated in a press release at the time, though the contract itself was never released.

Mr. Skelton-Cline was also enlisted to serve as chair of a “Cruise Tourism Committee” and help launch a seaplane excursion initiative, according to the press release.

Upon awarding this contract to Mr. Skelton-Cline, Mr. Fahie promised a public report detailing his accomplishments once the contract’s term expired.

“If he doesn’t produce, he’ll be fired. If he produces, well, then we’ll see,” Mr. Fahie said in the House of Assembly on April 26, 2019. “When you sign a man with a contract, if the deliverables don’t come, he’s in trouble.”

But the promised public report never materialised. Meanwhile, Prospect Reef remains in tatters with no plan in sight, and no comprehensive announcements have been made about any work he has done establishing new cruise line berthing rules, a climate change programme, new telecom terms, or the seaplane plan.

As for the “1,000 Jobs”  programme, Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley announced to the HOA on April 20 that 2,920 jobseekers had registered so far. Of those, 162 had been
placed in jobs. Data about how many remain employed is unclear, he said.

Another contract

Toward the end of the initial six-month contract period, government
handed Mr. Skelton-Cline another nobid deal as a government consultant, this time from Sept. 18, 2019 until Aug. 17, 2020 at a rate of $12,000 a month.

This monthly fee would only be paid “upon presentation of invoices … accompanied with status reports of the promised deliverables,” according to a summary of a Nov. 22, 2019 Cabinet meeting provided by the Cabinet Office.

However, it was unclear exactly what projects Mr. Skelton-Cline was engaged to accomplish this time around, and no contract, reports or invoices have been released to the public.

Current status

After his previous contract expired last August, Mr. Skelton-Cline continued working as a government consultant, he said in a Sept. 16 interview with 284 Media. But during the same interview, he was tight-lipped about the details of his engagement.

“I do whatever [the premier] asks of me,” Mr. Skelton-Cline told 284 Media at the time, adding, “I am responsible for identifying new developments, new revenue streams, in terms of bringing new job opportunities, new entrepreneurial opportunities to the country.”

However, the consultant declined to provide details, explaining that he “cannot report with any specificity what we are working on. I can say there are two major  projects … that are in tow right now.”

He also did not say when his contract was renewed or extended.

Though Mr. Skelton-Cline’s previous two contracts were noted in weekly summaries of Cabinet meetings, the Cabinet Office stopped issuing such notices during the territory’s Covid-19 outbreak.

Mr. Skelton-Cline, meanwhile, has  repeatedly defended himself against accusations of impropriety, and continued to do so during his Sept. 16 interview with 284 Media.

“There are a myriad of contracts that’s issued in these Virgin Islands, and seldom do you hear anything about any of them,” he said at the time. “But when it comes to Claude Skelton-Cline, I understand that I can be a lightning rod given who I am and the voice that I lend to this country.”