The recently published draft Contractor General Act, 2021 would create an independent office to oversee and investigate how government contracts are awarded in the Virgin Islands. In the past, many public projects have given rise to questions about contract management, including the Elmore Stoutt High School wall (above) built under the previous administration. (File photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

Shortly before departing the Virgin Islands, then-Governor Gus Jaspert voiced concerns about a lack of transparency in the governance of the territory, pointing to the process for awarding construction contracts as one example.

But Premier Andrew Fahie said in a recent House of Assembly sitting that he hopes the proposed Contractor General Act, 2021 would help allay such concerns.

“This 12th bill is very special among all the others,” Mr. Fahie said March 4 in the House when introducing the bill for a first reading. “It is one of many in the suite of good-governance legislation that this government has — all of us during the campaign trail and even now — has always promised the people of the Virgin Islands that we would bring.”

The proposed law is now public — it was Gazetted on March 12 — and it is expected to be debated soon in the HOA. The bill would establish the Office of the Contractor General to monitor government contracts.

Mr. Fahie told the HOA the office would work to ensure “balance and fairness in the receiving of government contracts, and also to look into any kind of concerns with how persons may have received government contracts, and to make sure it is being done in a most prudent manner that will not contradict the auditor general nor the complaints commissioner nor even the police.”

According to the proposed law, this independent position would be filled “on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration or project management.”

The premier would appoint the first contractor general, “acting on the recommendations of” the opposition leader and with Cabinet approval, the bill states.

The appointee would hold office for five years and be eligible for reappointment.

Office’s powers

The contractor general’s responsibilities would include the oversight of government contract awards.

The new office would work to ensure contractors are impartially chosen based on merit, looking out for “any impropriety or irregularity” and “fraud, corruption, mismanagement, waste or abuse in the awarding of contracts by a public body,” the bill states.

The contractor general would also be tasked with developing appropriate policy guidelines for contract awards and evaluating contractors’ performance.

Additionally, the office would be empowered to oversee the suspension or revocation of any prescribed licences.

Appeal tribunal

Public bodies would have a 14-day window to appeal decisions made by the contractor general to a five-member appeal tribunal created under the act.

Under the proposed law, the contractor general would get access to information on contract awards and any changes made to them during the course of a project.

Through a magistrate warrant, the contractor general would also be empowered to seek access to relevant bookkeeping records, any premises included under the contract, and more.

Additionally, the bill would allow the contractor general to start an investigation based on observations or on tips from other people.

“The contractor general shall not, after receipt of a complaint or information from an employee, … disclose the identity of the employee without the consent of the employee, unless the contractor general determines that such disclosure is unavoidable during the course of the investigation,” according to the bill text.

Investigations

Potential areas of investigation would include contractor selection; tender procedures; public contract awards; allegations of fraud, mismanagement or waste involving public contracts; meeting the terms of public contracts; and licensing issues.

Once an initial investigation is concluded, the contractor general would submit a written report to the principal officer at the relevant public body for the project. Suspected criminal offences would be referred to the director of public prosecutions.

Under the proposed law, anyone who obstructs the contractor general’s office would face a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine and 12 months’ imprisonment.

Lawmakers will consider the bill once it comes for a second reading in the House.


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