Besides questioning current members of the House of Assembly over the past week, the Commission of Inquiry also called former members as it sought information about elected officials’ interests.
Like their in-office counterparts, they were asked for details about how the Register of Interests was created, why it is not functioning properly, and why they filed their required annual declarations late.
None of the previous legislators submitted all their declarations on time, with most claiming ignorance of the legal mandate to do so.
The first former member called was Dr. Hubert O’Neal on June 16, followed in the succeeding days by Dr. Orlando Smith, Dr. Kedrick Pickering, Archie Christian, Ingrid Moses-Scatliffe, Myron Walwyn, and Ronnie Skelton.
The register contains information about elected officials’ business dealings with the aim of discouraging conflicts of interest.
During the hearings, COI Counsel Bilal Rawat provided information about the register contained in a 2009 report by then-Registrar of Interests Victoreen Romney-Varlack.
Originally, the Register of Interests Act passed in 2006, but it wasn’t brought into force until Feb 18, 2008, he explained, and the HOA standing select committee needed to oversee its operation wasn’t established until 2016.
According to the report, House members had to submit their declarations of interests within 30 days of the act coming into force, then again on the anniversary of them taking office. Newly elected members have to submit their declarations on the day they are sworn in, and then every year thereafter as long as they hold office.
However, Ms. Romney-Varlack, who stepped down this year, noted difficulties from the outset, particularly because the House delayed creating the required standing select committee of members to oversee the register.
One main responsibility of the committee, she noted at the time, is accepting reports from her when officials neglect to submit their forms on time.
During the past two weeks of hearings, the commission hammered home the point that for 13 years members consistently didn’t respond to the registrar’s repeated requests that they declare their interests on time as required by law.
Dr. Hubert O’Neal
Mr. Rawat started each of the hearings by asking the former HOA members about their professional and political backgrounds, and if they now support making the register public even though it wasn’t public during their tenure.
Dr. O’Neal served as the District Nine representative on the backbench of the House of Assembly from 2015 to 2018 and as junior minister of tourism from 2018 to 2019 as part of the National Democratic Party. Prior to his political career, he opened Tortola Vision Centre and Ophthalmology Surgical Practice, and worked as an ophthalmology consultant with Dr. Orlando Smith Hospital.
Dr. O’Neal said he supports making the register public.
“If I had to make a decision as a legislator about something, I would like to know that the public knows that I don’t have an interest in whatever project that is where it could in fact affect my decision making,” Dr. O’Neal said.
He added that he was familiar with his obligation to submit his declaration every year in office but acknowledged knowing little about the specifics of the act while serving.
He didn’t submit his first declaration for 2015 until it was just shy of two years overdue.
His 2016 declaration was a year late; his 2017 was only a few weeks over; and his 2018 declaration was about seven months late.
Asked about the delay, he said he did recall getting reminders from the registrar of interests but he said the need to keep up with the declarations wasn’t made clear during his orientation.
“It didn’t seem to be something of great importance at the time,” he said. “I must say I was tardy in following through with my declarations.”
Dr. O’Neal said the House should do more to ensure that select committees, like the one in charge of the Register of Interests, stay active and meet regularly.
He did, however, say he found the forms fairly intuitive to fill out, unlike some current HOA members.
His main declarations had to do with his medical practice, particularly when involving the public hospital. Dr. O’Neal said he needed to be transparent about his practice, but medical professionals were typically given permission to serve simultaneously as elected officials.
“We are a small territory with a limited number of professionals,” he said. “My services are needed in the territory. It naturally follows that I would have exemption.”
Dr. Orlando Smith
Former Premier Dr. Smith echoed these remarks concerning his interests in the medical field during his hearing on June 17.
He recalled being the only surgeon in the Virgin Islands for a time, and he later worked as chief medical officer and hospital director at the former Peebles Hospital.
In 1999 he was first elected to office as head of the fledgling National Democratic Party, and he served as opposition leader through 2003. He served again from 2003 to 2007 as the chief minister, and when the form of government changed to the House of Assembly in 2007, he served in the opposition. He became the premier and minister of finance after winning the election in 2011, and he retired in 2019.
Dr. Smith said when the register was established, the House’s collective view was that it should be private in the beginning out of concern for “very disturbing and very serious” interference in politics based on the declarations.
Mr. Rawat asked if he felt any sort of obligation through his leadership position to ensure other members filed their declarations, and Dr. Smith said he did feel some responsibility to discuss it with them. He agreed with Mr. Rawat’s suggestion that a “culture of noncompliance” would undermine the register’s effectiveness.
A ‘blank book’
But Mr. Rawat again cited the registrar, who in a 2014 letter to then-Governor Boyd McCleary was “practically begging” for assistance in prompting the House to take necessary action to carry out the Register of Interests Act, he said.
She characterised the register as a “blank book” because the Standing Orders Committee had not taken the necessary steps to form the standing select committee charged with overseeing the register, according to Mr. Rawat.
Besides receiving reports from the registrar about the members’ noncompliance, the body had to create the form for HOA members to make their declarations in the first place.
Mr. Rawat said the select committee wasn’t formed until 2016, eight years after the act came into force. He asked Dr. Smith why.
The former premier said he couldn’t recall the difficulty, and acknowledged that something like amending the House’s standing orders to establish a committee “takes a while.”
Mr. Rawat later noted that because the committee didn’t create an official declaration form during the one time it met, technically the register doesn’t exist to this day.
Dr. Smith rejected the commission’s suggestion that the extreme delays “reflect a lack of priority among members.”
But he conceded that members did perhaps display a “lack of concern for consequences.”
Committee members appointed in 2016 included Archibald Christian, Marlon Penn, Alvera Maduro-Caines, Julian Fraser, Andrew Fahie, and Mark Vanterpool as chair.
Dr. Smith himself was behind with his declarations by a few days in 2015 and 2017; he was on time in 2016; and he was overdue by nearly three months in 2018.
Dr. Kedrick Pickering
Also coming from a medical background, former Deputy Premier Dr. Pickering testified on June 17. He told the COI that he qualified as a physician in Jamaica in 1985 and later pursued a speciality in OB/GYN.
He was then elected as the District Seven representative with the National Democratic Party in 1999, and he held that position until 2019, serving in various ministerial roles when the NDP was in power, including deputy premier from 2011-2019.
Dr. Pickering offered a mixed review of publicising the register: He said keeping it private initially seemed like the right move when the law was passed but he noted that VI society has evolved since then. Nevertheless, he said it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the territory would be ready for a major change.
Turning to his own declarations, he confirmed that his 2014 form was a month late; his 2015 form was overdue by a year; and his 2016 form was almost a year late.
Mr. Rawat pointed to a letter from the registrar dated Jan. 8, 2019 inquiring about the status of his 2017 and 2018 declarations. Dr. Pickering said he didn’t recall exactly when he sent them, but he believed he did.
When Mr. Rawat asked why he was late five years in a row, Dr. Pickering said, “That’s a good question. I don’t remember why it happened that way.”
He did, however, agree with the counsel’s suggestion that repeated failings by legislators undermines the purpose of the register.
In response to other questions, he noted that he never saw it necessary to seek exemption from the House to practise medicine at the public hospital because he did not get paid for his services there.
Mr. Christian rounded out June 17’s hearings with past members. Before pursuing politics he became a real estate appraiser, joining the firm Smiths Gore BVI Limited in 1983.
He was elected in 2011 and 2015 as a member of the NDP and served as a territorial representative and eventually junior minister for tourism before retiring from politics in 2019.
Mr. Christian fully supported a public register, and he said he didn’t recall debating the inclusion of public officers in his time.
He missed his 2015 due date by less than a month; his 2016 and 2017 declarations were on time; and he missed his 2018 declaration by just shy of three months.
In his tenure, he served as one of the select committee members, and he only recalled one meeting around 2017.
He added, “The rest is history.”
Mr. Christian said the committee’s agenda and timetable for meeting should have been set by the chair, and he couldn’t give a reason why it didn’t meet more than once. He didn’t remember creating a register form during that one meeting.
He said the currently used form was not put in layman’s terms, but he did remember the registrar requesting more information about his shareholdings at one point.
On June 18, former House Speaker Ms. Moses-Scatliffe appeared before the inquiry. Before politics, she said, she was a partner in local law firm, chief registrar of lands, and senior manager at a bank for 12 years. She was first appointed speaker in 2011 shortly after the election.
Ms. Moses-Scatliffe missed all her deadlines from 2014 to 2018, often by just a few days.
Pointing out a memorandum from Mr. McCleary dated July 9, 2014 that drew attention to the delinquency of some members, Mr. Rawat asked if steps were taken to ensure compliance. She said she met with members to discuss the issue.
Ms. Moses-Scatliffe said she also conferred with the then-premier and Standing Orders Committee chair about establishing the necessary select committee.
Coming from a background as a teacher, hospitality professional, business owner, Crown counsel, and law firm owner, Mr. Walwyn first entered politics in 2011 as a territorial NDP candidate. He became the minister of education and culture and was re-elected in 2015.
He supported opening the register to the public, noting that the move would boost the public’s confidence in government.
His declarations were more than three months late for 2015, 2016 and 2017, and his 2018 declaration was less than two months late.
Mr. Rawat referred to four media reports concerning the formation of the registry’s standing select committee, and he asked Mr. Walwyn if he was aware of the importance of establishing the committee.
Mr. Walwyn said he is aware now, but wasn’t at the time.
He partially attributed the eight-year delay to members’ inclination to pursue a sweeping amendment of the standing orders that would address multiple issues with the orders at the same time.
Mr. Walwyn said the Standing Orders Committee could have pursued the minor amendment and done the major overhaul later, but members were “trying to be ambitious in addressing long-standing issues with the Standing Orders.”
The final member, past or present, to testify about the register of interests was Mr. Skelton, a businessman and former general manager of the BVI Electricity Corporation.
Mr. Skelton joined the Legislative Council in 1999 with the NDP, was re-elected in 2003, 2011 and 2015, left his party in November 2018 to form the Progressive Virgin Islands Movement, and ran unsuccessfully in 2019. He has held various ministerial roles, including deputy premier and finance minister.
Mr. Skelton said he doesn’t oppose publishing the information in the register in its current form, but if requirements change in the future he may reconsider, he said.
He remembered being part of the legislature when the original bill to establish the register was debated in 2006 but couldn’t recall the specifics of the concerns raised.
His declaration in 2015 was late by more than three months; 2016 was on time; he claimed he completed filling in the form for 2017 in time but forgot to give it to the registrar until it was past due; and in 2018 it was late by less than a month.
Mr. Skelton chaired the Standing Orders Committee around 2014 while it was asked repeatedly by the registrar to pursue amending the Standing Orders and allow the registry’s select committee to start. He claimed the delay was not deliberate and that the registrar knew he wanted to carry the motion forward.
“All I can do as chair is apologise for the inaction,” he said. “There’s no excuse really.”