The Commission of Inquiry questioned former Premier Dr. Orlando Smith last week about belongerships that Cabinet allegedly awarded improperly just before the start of his 2011- 2019 tenure as premier.
The questioning was based largely on a 2012 report by the Internal Audit Department, which IAD Director Dorea Corea explained in detail during a COI hearing earlier in the week.
According to the report and her testimony, barely half of the people given belongership status between 2009 and 2011 “were awarded their status within the framework of the law.”
On July 8, COI Counsel Bilal Rawat asked Dr. Smith about the department’s assertion that 224 belongership applicants were “approved” by Cabinet even though they were not considered by the Immigration Board and no board recommendations were submitted on their behalf.
During the hearing, Mr. Rawat cited claims from Ms. Corea’s report that applicants’ names were added in Cabinet based on personal recommendations from members.
“Cabinet’s approval of status in this manner renders the purpose, operations and functions of the board null and void as one of the reasons for which they were appointed and engaged is undermined and, in some instances, ignored,” he read from the report.
The report reviewed the period between 2009 and 2011, and Mr. Rawat noted that Dr. Smith didn’t take office until November 2011, but he nevertheless asked the former premier if he was made aware of the report after being elected.
Dr. Smith said he knew his permanent secretary contributed to the report, but he didn’t recall seeing it amid the “chaotic period in the ministry” when he took office.
“When we got into office, we took the process quite seriously about giving status, whether it’s residence or belonger status, and we compiled the persons who … had made submissions for them to the Board of Immigration, who made their comments, and then sent them along to the House or to the Cabinet,” he added.
Mr. Rawat also asked about discrepancies between an ordinance and a government policy on belongership approvals.
The Immigration and Passport Ordinance, he said, established that a person must reside in the territory for no fewer than 10 years before applying for belongership status.
But under Dr. Smith’s previous government in 2006, a policy was approved that required people to live in the VI for over 20 years to qualify — and that also restricted application numbers to 25 people at a time.
At the same time, the then-Executive Council also recommended increasing the qualifying period to 25 years, Mr. Rawat said.
Asked about the issue, Dr. Smith asserted that the language of the original ordinance gives Cabinet — which replaced the Executive Council under the 2007 Constitution — latitude to extend the time period.
When the government considers how many belongerships to grant, he added, it is important that applicants have had enough time to assimilate.
Dr. Smith continued, “If that did not happen, it causes conflict between the persons who were there before and those who come after it. So those are factors that we took into consideration when making this decision.”
One recommendation the internal auditor made, Mr. Rawat said, is to update the original ordinance to align with the procedure in use.
Asked if such steps were taken, Dr. Smith said that they would be unnecessary because of the wording of the original ordinance: Because it simply says that applicants must reside “no less than 10 years” in the territory, he argued, nothing prevents government from making the requirement longer in practice.
Mr. Rawat pressed further. “What you have is, in your department, the internal auditor saying there is still a mismatch here. It’s illegal. Did no public officer or permanent secretary come to you and say, ‘This is an issue that might need to be resolved’?” he asked.
Dr. Smith said no.
He went on to explain that his priority upon taking office was shrinking a significant backlog of applicants going back to 2003.
After acknowledging again that Dr. Smith wasn’t in office until late 2011, Mr. Rawat asked, “Did your Cabinet, in the time that you were premier and led Cabinet, … put in any steps to stop members being able to introduce applications for belonger status at Cabinet level?”
Dr. Smith replied, “During the time when we were in office, once you considered the recommendation by the [Immigration] Board, there’s always a discussion — maybe this person should have been included or maybe that person should have been included — but we did not all do this,” he said. “What we did was approved or disapproved the names of the list that were sent, submitted by the Immigration Board.”
He said he didn’t recall Cabinet members skirting the Immigration Board to make personal recommendations.
“During the discussion, members would suggest names of persons who they thought were deserving, and these then could be forwarded to the board by the immigration officer who was responsible,” Dr. Smith said. “As far as I can recall, they were not subject to Cabinet decision at that time.”
Asked if a Cabinet member recommendation might influence the approval process, especially with only 25 slots open, Dr. Smith said no.
Switching subjects, Mr. Rawat questioned the former premier about the assistance grants programme through which ministers can individually select certain community projects or people to support financially.
For background, he drew Dr. Smith’s attention to a 2014 draft report by the Internal Audit Department about the programme, which he said “highlighted a number of concerns.”
In his questions, Mr. Rawat focused on four main issues: the lack of a formal procedure for applicants to request assistance; their ability to make multiple requests for the same programme or for the same type of support for programmes from different ministries; duplicate allocations for programmes with the same purpose; and ministers’ total discretion on the amount of assistance given.
“In their current state, these programmes lack adequate controls to safeguard them from abusive practices,” Mr. Rawat read from the report. “The methods by which amounts are approved and the decisions made lacks transparency which can cast a dark cloud over the programmes.”
Dr. Smith said he didn’t remember the report being circulated in August 2014, even though the draft should have gone to relevant ministries, including the Ministry of Finance.
Regardless, Mr. Rawat asked Dr. Smith if “the way those programmes were being administered ever gave you cause for concern while you were premier?”
Dr. Smith didn’t give a yes or no answer, but he reassured the commission that any minister’s request would have to pass consultation from a permanent secretary or the financial secretary before getting approved.
He added that all organisations should have regular audits to improve efficiency and make necessary changes.
Mr. Rawat asked if his administration made any changes to how the grant programme functioned between 2011 and 2019.
Dr. Smith recalled his administration recommending to reduce the grants.
“I think we reduced them by 50 percent,” he said.
He added that he didn’t recall any other changes.
“I would agree that, based on this reading just now, it would have been the right thing to do to relook at how the grants are being administered and then come up with some process,” he said.
Better accounting systems should help members know if someone has already made an application to another minister, he added.
One body that should help oversee spending is the five-member Internal Audit Advisory Committee. But the internal auditor gave evidence that this body hasn’t functioned since December 2016, Mr. Rawat said. He asked why.
“There is no reason for not reestablishing it,” Dr. Smith responded, claiming the matter was never brought to his attention.
Mr. Rawat then turned to the Elmore Stoutt High School perimeter wall project that started in 2014 but suffered from budget and contract splitting issues.
He asked if Dr. Smith could recall when the Ministry of Finance’s Project Support Unit that was supposed to provide oversight was established. The premier said he couldn’t remember when, but he said he knew it should have worked to make sure government-funded projects proceeded as expected, “expeditiously and properly.”
Dr. Smith was recorded as absent from the Cabinet meeting on Feb. 4, 2015 when Cabinet approved $828,000 for the project and waived the tender process, Mr. Rawat said. The premier said then-Acting Premier Ronnie Skelton would have put the paper before Cabinet.
Mr. Rawat asked where the Ministry of Finance expected the money to originate. Dr. Smith said it would have to come from a different capital expenditure from the Ministry of Education and Culture.
He said Cabinet and the Ministry of Finance didn’t attempt to find additional funding from other sources for the project.
Even though Dr. Smith wasn’t present at the Cabinet meeting, Mr. Rawat asked him why it would have been appropriate to waive the tender process for the construction project. He also presented a memorandum Dr. Smith had signed, which he said stated that the total project cost exceeded the procurement threshold.
The former premier responded, “Reading through this document and also from knowledge, the minister was very concerned about illegal activities around the schools, including illegal entry, including use of cocaine and various things like that. The chief of police was also very concerned, and they thought it was important to do something to protect the lives of the young people who were attending that school.”
The commission questioned former Education and Culture Minister Myron Walwyn about the project the week prior.