The auditor general’s special report on the government’s failed deal with BVI Airways was required by law to be tabled in the House of Assembly no later than last Thursday.
But the public is still waiting, and Governor Gus Jaspert and Premier Andrew Fahie are blaming each other for the delay.
The Audit Act 2003 requires the auditor general to submit special reports to the governor and the finance minister — a position held by Mr. Fahie — at the same time. The governor then has the responsibility to “cause the report to be laid before” the legislature within three months of receiving it.
In this case, the governor said he received the BVI Airways report, which is dated Jan. 27, on Feb. 7, meaning that it would need to be passed to Cabinet in time to be tabled in the HOA by last Thursday. He maintains that he did so, providing the report to Cabinet on April 22.
“It was all done within the timescales,” Mr. Jaspert said on last week.
Mr. Fahie, however, has argued otherwise.
After apparently misunderstanding the date that Mr. Jaspert received the report, the premier wrote United Kingdom Minister for Overseas Territories Baroness Elizabeth Sugg on April 23 to complain about the governor’s handling of the document.
Mr. Fahie’s letter claimed that the governor had received the report on Jan. 27 and that he had failed to bring it to Cabinet in time to meet the required three-month timeframe, according to an April 28 broadcast by 284 Media.
The governor quickly responded, claiming that the premier’s allegation was based on factual errors and clarifying that the Governor’s Office actually received the report on Feb. 7 and submitted it to Cabinet on April 22.
“The report has been submitted to Cabinet and it is now a matter for the premier to arrange for it to be laid in the House [of Assembly] at the next available sitting,” the office wrote, adding that Mr. Jaspert “discharged his duties fully in line with the timescales as set out in the Audit Act 2003.”
According to the office, discussions around the report were delayed in Cabinet by a day as Covid-19 issues were prioritised.
Two days later, Mr. Fahie released a statement acknowledging the governor’s claim that his office had received the report on Feb. 7 instead of Jan. 27, but he nevertheless stood by his complaint that the Cabinet wasn’t given sufficient time to review the document.
HOA meetings, he noted, have to be called 10 days in advance, and so a notice for a sit ting would have had to be dispatched on April 27.
“Members of Cabinet would have been required to read and digest the 47-page report, to hold deliberations on it and to approve for the minister of finance to table it before the HOA. And they would have been required to do this in less than three days while managing the reopening and rebooting of the economy,” Mr. Fahie wrote. “And this is while the report had been sitting at the Governor’s Office for more than two and a half months.”
With more notice, he said, Cabinet could have processed the report in time.
“If it was brought to Cabinet earlier, then Cabinet would have had a reasonable opportunity to perform its duties,” he wrote. “There is no guarantee that based on when the governor brought the report to Cabinet, that the deadline under the Audit Act can be kept, and in order to do that the work of Cabinet will have to be compromised.”
Mr. Fahie also questioned why the document was “sitting” for “more than 10 weeks” and why the Cabinet was “placed in a position where it is forced to do a ‘rush job’” in order to meet the statutory deadline.
‘Not my role’
On Friday, the governor said that no changes were made to the report during the weeks before he provided it to Cabinet.
The “auditor general operates independently” and “her report is her report,” he said, adding, “There is nothing that I would change in it; that’s not my role to do that.”
According to the governor, such reports don’t have to be edited or altered either by him or by the Cabinet, and they don’t have to be redacted unless they include information that is legally sensitive.
“On this specific report the next step is that it goes to the HOA, where it can be publicly debated, and it can go to any relevant authorities that can do further investigations,” he explained Friday.
The main goal for the HOA and Cabinet in reviewing the document, he said, is to learn from it.
“The Cabinet’s role is, as with any other report, to say, ‘Okay, what does this mean? How do we make sure there is no repeat if there are any failings identified in [the] report? How do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?’” he said. “That’s a key role you’d hope to expect Cabinet to do. Most importantly is that the government learns lessons and puts things in place to stop any repeats.”
The governor said no penalty is attached to the delay, but he hopes the report is tabled soon.
It is unclear when that will happen, however. The next HOA meeting has not been publicly announced, and Mr. Fahie and the Premier’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
The government has not provided any updates on the matter since Mr. Fahie’s April 30 statement.
BVI Airways promised to provide direct flights between the VI and Miami in exchange for an “investment” from the government, which was to be paid back if the airline was sufficiently profitable. But no flights materialised even though the government funnelled $7.2 million to the airline in 2016 and 2017, and angry residents called for answers.
After years of first denying problems and then deflecting the blame for them, former Premier Dr. Orlando Smith acknowledged shortly before last year’s election that the BVI Airways deal was a failed investment.
In 2018, Dr. Smith’s government hired Martin Kenney & Co. Solicitors — a VI-based law firm that specialises in investigating fraud — to probe the deal. That investigation has continued under Mr. Fahie’s government.
Separately, the auditor general carried out what the governor described in November as a “special value-for-money report.” At the time, Mr. Jaspert also promised it would be made public.
Freeman Rogers contributed to this report.