Recently released transcripts show that Commission of Inquiry hearings held on May 11 and May 13 focused on topics including the development of the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, the barges government hired to patrol the borders during the pandemic, and various government contracts.
Over the past week, the COI published the transcripts of May 13 proceedings involving BVI Airports Authority Chairman Bevis Sylvester, Chief Immigration Officer Ian Penn, and government lawyer Sir Geoffrey Cox QC, as well as the transcript of a May 11 hearing with government consultant Claude Skelton-Cline.
A transcript including testimony from Mr. Sylvester originally was published on May 19, but that version was removed from the COI’s website and replaced on May 25 with a version that removed the about 50 pages of testimony from Mr. Sylvester’s hearing.
Mr. Sylvester’s hearing — which, like the others, was led by Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom — started off with a review of Mr. Sylvester’s career, from the Ministry of Finance budget coordinator to Delta Petroleum regional general manager and BVIAA board chair.
Prompted by COI Counsel Bilal Rawat, Mr. Sylvester explained that he left the public service when he was convicted in connection with a government contract to help develop the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport in the early 2000s.
At the time, investigators alleged that Mr. Sylvester improperly used his government position as budget coordinator to award a contract for telecommunications equipment for the airport to a company with no experience in telecommunications that was formed solely for the contract. In 2004 a judge sentenced Mr. Sylvester to six months in prison after he pleaded guilty to obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception and neglect of duty, according to media reports at the time.
In connection with the same project, now-Premier Andrew Fahie was also investigated on suspicion of money laundering, but he was never charged and he has repeatedly denied wrongdoing in the matter.
About a year and a half after Mr. Sylvester left the public service, he said, he was hired at Delta Petroleum, where he currently serves as regional general manager.
Prompted by Mr. Rawat, Mr. Sylvester said that Delta, a wholesale and retail distributor of fuel in the Caribbean, has been operating out of the Virgin Islands since 1984.
Mr. Rawat also asked about Mr. Sylvester’s connections with managing director and part owner Vernon Lake.
Mr. Sylvester explained that Mr. Lake was formerly married to Patsy Lake, who recently testified in a COI hearing as the BVIAA board deputy chair.
Mr. Sylvester also said Delta has held multiple contracts with the BVI Electricity Corporation for importing fuel into the territory.
Turning to Mr. Sylvester’s role as BVIAA board chair, Mr. Rawat asked why he initially “ignored” a letter of request the COI sent him on April 6.
“Because I didn’t know exactly what you were asking for,” Mr. Sylvester responded, saying the request for contracts was very broad. “It confused me.”
According to the transcript, Mr. Sylvester responded to the COI on May 10 only after he received a summons to the May 13 proceeding.
Further prompted at the hearing, he said he would provide additional information by May 17.
Mr. Rawat also asked about a report assessing the future of air transportation in the VI, and why it hadn’t yet been made public. Mr. Sylvester said it had needed to go through Cabinet and is currently under review.
“It’s a pretty sensitive document, so that’s why it did not make — being made public at that time,” he said. “They’re still working at [air safety regulator Air Safety Support International] on it to get the organisation structure correct.”
An Atlanta-based consultant was engaged in December 2019 to create the taxpayer-funded report, officials said previously. The Beacon’s attempts to obtain the document at the time were not successful, and Mr. Sylvester did not answer this newspaper’s questions about when it would be made public.
Mr. Rawat also asked if Mr. Sylvester had “any actual knowledge of anyone either directly or indirectly purchasing land” on Beef Island to ultimately benefit by selling it if there was a runway expansion. Mr. Sylvester said no.
The commission also requested documents related to his appointment as BVIAA board chair. The hearing then concluded, but Sir Gary said the commission may have more questions and could call him back at a later date to give further evidence.
Attorney Nelcia St. Jean, of McW Todman & Co., appeared for Mr. Sylvester.
Mr. Penn’s testimony on May 13 focused largely on border control initiatives that were part of the Covid-19 response, but Mr. Rawat began by asking him about his professional history.
Mr. Penn said he began working with the Immigration Department in 1987 and was appointed as acting chief immigration officer in February 2018. He was confirmed last year.
Mr. Rawat asked him about the Joint Task Force, also known as the Border Control Task Force, that was formed to help enforce lockdown measures shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic hit the territory.
Mr. Penn said he gave input on the territory’s Comprehensive Border Security Plan, and confirmed that the Joint Task Force had identified the equipment needed to carry out management plans.
Pointing to a part of the information packet before Mr. Penn titled “Unsolicited Proposal for Border Control,” Mr. Rawat highlighted a May 6, 2020 proposal from EZ Shipping Barge Service, which received contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide barges to host border patrol teams during the pandemic.
Mr. Penn said he couldn’t say when he became aware of the proposal.
Mr. Rawat also asked about the possibility of using smaller vessels that might have been provided at a much lower cost, but Mr. Penn claimed this option wasn’t feasible because it could put officers at risk in bad weather or make them more susceptible to seasickness.
Directing Mr. Penn’s attention to an email chain with then-Police Commissioner Michael Matthews and then-acting Customs Commissioner Leslie Lettsome, Mr. Rawat asked, “Do you agree that, as the commissioner says in his email, that previously where boats had been used as platforms they ‘had been provided free with just costs for fuel and provisions’?”
Mr. Penn responded, “I cannot agree to that because I was not … a party to that.”
He added that the Immigration Department doesn’t have a marine section and relies on customs and police officers to go out on the water.
“Now, whatever decision or deals that police or customs may have with other private vessels, owners in the territory or whatever, I am not read in on those — on those deals or anything like that,” he added.
Asked if he agreed with an email from Mr. Matthews suggesting the barge project be tendered given its high price, Mr. Penn responded in the negative.
“Was there any reason why you did not see a benefit of a tender process?” Mr. Rawat asked.
“No, I didn’t have any specific reason,” Mr. Penn replied, adding that he believes tender processes are in principle a good idea but may need to be waived in certain “emergencies.”
He also said Joint Task Force members made inquiries with other barge owners for comparable prices, though he believed that most of these inquiries were verbal and he didn’t have a written record of the conversations.
Mr. Penn maintained that other alternatives for monitoring the territory’s porous borders may have been cheaper, but they weren’t practical at the time. The barges, he added, proved effective in protecting the borders.
“I don’t have those figures, but I know that we got a lot of interception from these barges because, as I said, they were positioned strategically, the radar turned on,” he said.
Mr. Rawat also asked about plans to implement thorough background checks for Immigration Department workers prior to employment; Mr. Penn said he hopes to implement such a system soon.
In attendance for Mr. Penn were Solicitor General Jo-Ann Williams-Roberts and Withers’ Sara-Jane Knock, instructed by Attorney General Dawn Smith.
The May 11 hearing with Mr. Skelton-Cline explored his government contracts and business interests, according to a transcript of the proceeding published May 25.
Mr. Skelton-Cline has previously insisted his recent contracts are public information, though the Beacon has been unable to obtain them in spite of multiple requests over more than two years.
Prompted by the commission, Mr. Skelton-Cline described his background as a pastor in America and his work with former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who stepped down from his position in 2008 after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.
Shortly after Mr. Kilpatrick resigned, a firm headed by Mr. Skelton-Cline was contracted here to run the Virgin Islands Neighbourhood Partnership Project, which then-Education and Culture Minister Andrew Fahie unveiled during a February 2009 press conference.
The taxpayer-funded programme, which officials said cost taxpayers nearly $572,000 during its less than two years of existence, was designed to assist at-risk youths by providing grants to churches and similar organisations, but it eventually was halted after questions arose about its results.
During Mr. Skelton-Cline’s hearing, Sir Gary asked him about his involvement with the Neighbourhood Partnership Project, which Mr. Skelton-Cline said occurred around 2007 to 2009, just before he returned to the territory full time in 2010.
He added that the name of the organisation that received the consultancy contract slipped his mind, though when Mr. Rawat mentioned Claude Ottley Consulting Limited he said it possibly rang a bell. He added that he was contracted by Mr. Fahie’s Education Ministry.
The commission requested a copy of his contract, but he said he doubted he retained the paperwork.
After the NPP, Mr. Skelton-Cline began a run for office as an independent candidate in 2011 and later joined the National Democratic Party but lost the election, he told the COI. He later was appointed the BVI Ports Authority managing director.
“You said you were unsuccessful [running with the NDP], but did you get a post in government because your party had succeeded?” Mr. Rawat asked.
Mr. Skelton-Cline responded, “Well, I’d like to think that I got a post in government because of my competencies; and so, the fact that the party that I supported was in charge, I suspect, as is the case, would have been helpful in that area.”
Asked about his current consultancy and business interests, Mr. Skelton-Cline listed Grace Consulting and Counselling, which he described as a marriage coaching service; the import-export entity Grand Savings; The Original New York Pizza owned by his wife; the family-run Skelton Group of Companies; and New Life Baptist Church, where he said he serves as executive pastor.
He also indicated that he had never entered into a government contract as an individual, only through a company.
Mr. Skelton-Cline brought some documents with him to the hearing, but he declined to leave some of them with the team, explaining that his secretary had not yet completed making copies of the originals. Instead, he promised to deliver digital and hard copies that week.
On May 17, the commission released a schedule of hearings it expected to conduct, which also included the premier, Premier’s Office Permanent Secretary Dr. Carolyn O’Neal-Morton, and Financial Secretary Jeremiah Frett on May 18, as well as Greg Romney, Mr. Lettsome, and Mr. Matthews on May 20.
Those hearings were not livestreamed, and their transcripts were not published before the Beacon’s print deadline on May 26.
But an order from Sir Gary published on May 21 directed Mr. Frett to provide unaltered versions of any outstanding documents included in a letter of request by May 18. Sir Gary issued a similar order for Dr. O’Neal-Morton. The deadline was May 25.
For full transcripts of the hearings of Mr. Sylvester, Mr. Penn, Sir Geoffrey, and Mr. Skelton-Cline, see here: