The government paid $2.04 million to EZ Shipping Limited to rent barges for five months of border security services in 2020 and 2021 — including $738,000 for about two months when the barges were no longer in use, according to a November report by Auditor General Sonia Webster that was published last week.
Ms. Webster also found that then-Premier Andrew Fahie engaged the barges without approval from the governor, the Cabinet or the National Security Council, and that the deal was extended twice with no written request for continuation or report on effectiveness.
“No evidence has been presented to support statements regarding the effectiveness of the barges,” the report stated, adding, “In addition, the continuance of illicit activities was evident in drug busts that occurred during the period the barges were in use.”
In light of her findings, Ms. Webster recommended that the Attorney General’s Chambers assess whether government should pursue the recovery of money paid to EZ Shipping when the vessels were not in use. She also advised the police and the director of public prosecutions to review whether any offences may have been committed.
But Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said he believes the report is “incomplete” and shows “bias towards the police.”
“EZ Shipping was the most economical of the proposals,” Dr. Wheatley said during a House of Assembly sitting on Feb. 21, when the report was tabled and made public. “I don’t think the audit does a good job of putting in context how much it costs to hire vessels like these.”
Ms. Webster, however, stood by her agency’s work.
“The audit produced overwhelming evidence to support the conclusions in the report,” she told the Beacon yesterday.
The report was prepared in response to a recommendation in the Commission of Inquiry report urging an audit of the border patrol barges deployed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The purpose of this investigation is to provide independent information and advice on whether efficiency, economy and effectiveness were achieved from the award and payment of contracts engaged by the government for border security,” the report states.
The report includes four parts that dive deep into issues including value for money and compliance with statutory obligations.
The report found that “actions taken by the premier and the Ministry of Finance with respect to border security without authorisation of the National Security Council and the governor may have amounted to overstepping their legislative authority.”
One of the four recommendations posed by the auditor general is for “clear legislative repercussions at all levels for people who disregard legislative authority.”
Following the announcement of the pandemic on March 11, 2020, the territory closed its borders on March 22, the report recounted.
The territory’s Joint Task Force — which included 34 officers from the Customs and Immigration departments — was formed the following month to secure the borders from illegal entries and smuggling, according to the auditor general.
To help protect the territory’s waters at the time, Customs was renting fast boats from local vendors and relying heavily on volunteers from the charter industry to provide marine platforms and use their radar capabilities, the report stated.
Though then-Governor Gus Jaspert offered to invite the Royal Navy ship HMS Medway to provide border security support, Mr. Fahie declined the assistance and referred to it as a “UK military intervention,” according to the document.
On May 6, 2020, government received an unsolicited proposal from Clyde Chalwell of EZ Shipping offering two barges — Midnight Stone and Midnight Chief, at $9,500 and $7,500 per day, respectively — to the government as marine radar platforms, the report states.
The proposal initially was rejected by then-Police Commissioner Michael Matthews, who told Mr. Chalwell that the government was achieving the same results offered in the proposal nearly free of charge, according to the auditor general.
Nevertheless, about a month later, the JTF and Finance Ministry commenced a process of sourcing proposals for marine radar platforms and invited two other local companies to participate, Ms. Webster found. Global Ocean Transport submitted a proposal of $15,000 per day for one vessel while Caribbean Transport said it couldn’t provide the services, the report states.
EZ Shipping proposal
Following these responses, Cabinet issued a directive to revisit Mr. Chalwell’s proposal, and provisions for the EZ Shipping barges were incorporated in the Joint Task Force Border Security Plan, according to the auditor general.
The National Security Council, she added, approved the use of barges on July 24, 2020, but it mandated that a rapid tender process be used to source competitive submissions.
However, before that tender process was complete, Mr. Fahie dispatched the EZ Shipping barges on Aug. 23, 2020 without the knowledge or approval of the governor, the NSC or Cabinet, according to the report.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Fahie justified his actions with a public statement saying that the barges would allow for “more intense 24-hour” surveillance of the sea borders and that government was working toward establishing a network of radars that would help clamp down on human trafficking, drug smuggling and other illegal activities, according to the report.
But the auditor general noted that while the barges were deployed, there were two major land-based drug busts, neither of which was “detected by the barges.”
The first occurred on Sept. 27, 2020 at an Anderson Hill residence, yielding 124 kilograms of cocaine. The other, on Nov. 6, 2020, yielded a record 2.3 tonnes of cocaine found on a property in Balsam Ghut and valued at more than $250 million, the report noted.
“A suspect from the second drug bust escaped the BVI and travelled to St. John at a time when law enforcement was on high alert and one of the barges was located between Tortola and St. John,” Ms. Webster wrote. “The individual was later apprehended by US border agencies on [Nov. 18] on a vessel headed to Puerto Rico. The events demonstrated the limitations of the barges in effectively detecting and deterring serious criminal activity.”
Later that month, the government discontinued its use of the barges for border security, but EZ Shipping still got paid $738,000 for two more months, from Nov. 26, 2020 to Jan. 21, 2021, according to Ms. Webster. Ultimately, the company received between $12,000 to $14,000 per day for the vessels, the report states.
Ms. Webster also noted that statistics she reviewed suggest that the greatest reduction of illegal marine activity occurred when the UK Royal Navy ship HMS Medway was patrolling the territorial waters in October 2020.
During the Feb. 21 HOA meeting, Dr. Wheatley said he had identified “problems” with the audit report, alleging that the auditor general didn’t interview him, members of the NSC, or Mr. Chalwell. Dr. Wheatley also said that he spoke to Mr. Chalwell, who claimed he was approached for the proposals and that they weren’t in fact unsolicited as stated in the report.
Mr. Webster, however, defended her process.
“The findings will be pursued further by the appropriate authorities, which may or may not choose to pursue such interviews,” she told the Beacon. “We considered this to be the more appropriate approach.”
Attempts to reach Mr. Chalwell for comment were not immediately successful.