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)

Legislation designed to bring greater transparency to public construction contracts was debated in the House of Assembly on May 13 in a move that Premier Andrew Fahie described as part of broader efforts to improve governance in the territory.

If passed into law, the Contractor General Act, 2021 would establish the independent Office of the Contractor General to oversee government contracts.

Premier Andrew Fahie introduced the bill in the HOA on March 4, describing it as an important component in promoting good governance in the territory.

Mr. Fahie said at the time that the new 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.”

Powers

The original bill — which was Gazetted on March 12 — states that the 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.”

It would have the power to investigate matters like 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.

Following an initial investigation, the contractor general would submit a written report to the principal officer at the relevant public body for the project. A report would also be laid be- fore Cabinet. Suspected criminal offences would be referred to the director of public prosecutions. Anyone who obstructs the office would face a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine and 12 months’ imprisonment.

The premier explained that the body is not designed to compete with any already established government organisations, but to assist with contract oversight.

When bringing the bill for a second reading on May 13, Mr. Fahie said one thing to come out of recent public meetings on the proposed legislation was a recommendation that the office report to the Public Accounts Committee. Mr. Fahie said this step would help give the PAC teeth, as well as establishing a protocol for any necessary further investigations. He did not explicitly state if he planned to propose the amendment in committee, and the final version of the bill has not been Gazetted.

“[The Office of the Contractor General] must be a fully in- dependent body that has, with this legislation, set parameters with how it will operate to increase our ability of further strengthening good governance in this territory,” the premier said.

He said it is a sign of bipartisan strength for the territory that the premier would appoint the contractor general “acting on” the recommendations of the opposition leader and with Cabinet approval.

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

Mr. Fahie noted that the bill also gives contractors an avenue for appealing decisions made by the contractor general through a five-member appeal tribunal.

“With every law, there must be balance,” he said. “The contractor general legislation brings balance.”

Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley seconded the bill.

Institution building

Opposition Leader Marlon Penn said on May 13 that the bill is a solid measure in empowering the VI to police itself.

But he urged the House to use caution when establishing new institutions.
Turning to the “powers and functions” section of the bill, Mr. Penn requested more debate in closed-door committee, adding that the HOA must avoid in- fringing on any existing institutions like the Office of the Auditor General.

Mr. Penn also drew attention to a section that says the contractor general must report any evidence of criminal offences to the director of public prosecutions. He said the procedure for reporting such information needs to be more concrete, making sure that “overzealous” leadership doesn’t unnecessarily get people entangled in the legal system.

“I look forward to us having an engaged, robust conversation in the committee stage to ensure that we do what is intended, and we don’t create something that continues to add to the bureaucracy but something that serves a meaningful purpose in terms of the issue of transparency and accountability,”

Mr. Penn said, adding that this discussion should help ensure value for taxpayers’ money.

Other input

Opposition member Mitch Turnbull and Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer also spoke in support of the bill.

Mr. Turnbull said he supported the bill in principle if it delivers on promoting government accountability.

“You can’t change what you’re not willing to confront,” he said.

He also asked about the costs, benefits, and staffing needs of the proposed body, considering its mission would be to actively investigate contract work.
In his concluding remarks, Mr. Fahie shared his confidence that the cost of establishing the office would be money well spent given the expected boost to the territory’s reputation.

The House concluded on May 13 evening in closed-door committee on the Contractor General Act, 2021 and is scheduled to reconvene on May 27.


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