Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said last Thursday that costs for responding to the Commission of Inquiry — mostly for legal representation — exceeded $8 million. United Kingdom Queen’s Counsel Sir Geoffrey Cox, who formerly served as attorney general of England and Wales, was tasked with helping to lead the government’s Inquiry Response Unit. He earned some $883,000, according to United Kingdom media reports. (File screenshot: COI/YOUTUBE)

The Virgin Islands government has paid out more than $8 million in responding to the United Kingdom-led Commission of Inquiry, most of which went toward covering legal fees, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said on May 26 in the House of Assembly in response to a question from Opposition Leader Julian Fraser.

That figure doesn’t include other costs that are still being calculated, like employees’ time spent fulfilling information requests.

“My government has not undergone a full assessment of the true cost of the COI to taxpayers,” Dr. Wheatley said. “The indirect cost of staff salaries, use of paper, ink, etcetera, for example, have not been quantified to enable us to fully appreciate the true impact on the public purse.”

He added, “It was an expensive endeavour of defending the people of the Virgin Islands during that time.”

Cost breakdown

During the first six months of the inquiry, from Jan. 19 to July 18, 2021, costs amounted to $2,689,742.82, Dr. Wheatley said, adding that this figure included $2,437,751.50 for legal fees.

Then, the COI report deadline was pushed back to January 2022 and again to April 2022, which Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom said was necessary to process the “huge amount of documentation” supplied by the Inquiry Response Unit in a manner that was often “disorganised and unhelpful.”

During the extension period, Dr. Wheatley said the cost amounted to $5,367,740.98, including $4,689,531.52 for legal fees; $2,128.92 for security; and $676,080.54 for public relations. In response to another question from Mr. Fraser, the premier said he did not know what the COI cost UK taxpayers. However, Governor John Rankin told 284 Media on July 1 that the UK spent nearly £3 million (about $3.7 million) on the inquiry’s “core” costs.

Although Dr. Wheatley did not detail how the legal fees were allocated, the great majority apparently went to the United Kingdom-headquartered firm Withersworldwide. The firm was contracted on May 8, 2021 to provide legal support throughout the inquiry, including helping set up and operate the IRU.

The COI report notes that the total contracted remuneration for the firm from Jan. 20, 2021 to Feb. 28, 2022 came to $6.5 million — even though then-Premier Andrew Fahie had promised last August that payments to the firm would not exceed $5 million.

Not all government officials involved in the inquiry benefitted from the spend: The COI found that Withersworldwide did not represent the governor, past ministers, or “any public officer whose evidence might not accord with the position of the elected ministers, preeminent among whom were the registrar of interests, the auditor general, and the [Internal Audit Department].”

“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 COI report states.

The company was initially hired to carry out administrative duties related to the IRU, the body established to support the Attorney General’s Chambers and “ensure full cooperation with the inquiry and facilitation of the inquiry process, while upholding the legal duties and legitimate interests of the government,” a press release explained at the time.

UK lawyer Sir Geoffrey Cox, a Queen’s counsel who formerly served as attorney general of England and Wales, was tasked with helping lead the IRU. In November 2021, UK media widely reported that Sir Geoffrey had earned more than $883,000 for advising during the inquiry, and the opposition UK Labour Party was calling for a standards investigation into a possible rule breach after a live-streamed hearing appeared to show him using his House of Commons office to carry out private work in the inquiry.

Silk Legal

On May 26, Mr. Fraser also urged the premier to look further into the fees due to Silk Legal, a VI law firm Mr. Fahie enlisted to represent members of the House in the inquiry.

While the attorney general represented the whole elected government besides two backbenchers, Silk Legal represented six members of the House and then-Speaker Julian Willock. Those members included Mr. Fraser, then-opposition member Mitch Turnbull, District Six Representative Alvera Maduro-Caines, then-opposition member Mark Vanterpool, then-Opposition Leader Marlon Penn, and Deputy Speaker Neville Smith.