In May 2020, then-Premier Andrew Fahie received an unsolicited offer from the company EZ Shipping to use radar barges to help secure the territory’s borders, which were closed to gird against the spread of Covid-19, at a cost of roughly $17,000 a day.
In response, former Police Commissioner Michael Matthews, who had been copied on the proposal, emailed the company to decline, later telling Commissioner of Inquiry Sir Gary Hickinbottom that he did not think the offer was worth the money or that there was enough money in the budget, according to Sir Gary’s April COI report.
According to Sir Gary, “he thought he would be ‘laughed out of the room,’ and that the [minister of finance] would think he was ‘mad’ for taking such a proposal forward.”
But Mr. Fahie, then the finance minister, apparently did not think it was so crazy.
Without following the territory’s procurement rules or receiving approval from Cabinet, the Joint Task Force, or the National Security Council, Mr. Fahie instructed EZ Shipping that August to deploy three radar-equipped barges.
He would follow that up with two additional contracts, neither of which underwent any kind of tender process, spending $2.04 million over five months to station barges in VI waters to track sea traffic, alert interceptors, and ultimately deter unlawful entry, Sir Gary wrote.
The police commissioner, however, doubted the barges accomplished this goal, according to the COI report.
Recounting Mr. Matthews’ evidence before the COI, Sir Gary wrote that police continued to intercept vessels that the barges had not detected as the pandemic wore on.
He added that crime continued unabated, pointing to the 3.6 tons of cocaine seized between November 2020 and April 2021.
“There is evidence that illegal imports of substantial amounts of drugs may have been taking place despite the presence of the radar barges, which suggests that illegal entry by people may also have been occurring,” Sir Gary added.
Before EZ Shipping’s offer, the newly appointed Joint Task Force had employed a stop-gap approach to patrolling, relying heavily on voluntary assistance from private charter boats during the first months of the pandemic, Sir Gary wrote.
But by May 2020, many of the charter companies were no longer willing to lend their vessels for free, and they approached police about hiring boats for between $1,000 and $2,000 a week, Sir Gary wrote.
The commissioner added that all but two of the government-owned speedboats were non-functional and awaiting repair money from the Ministry of Finance.
That May, the JTF began to draft the first iterations of a border security plan — “a relatively rudimentary document which effectively set out a ‘wish list’ of requirements by the three law enforcement arms of the JTF,” Sir Gary wrote.
With an estimated cost of roughly $1,170,000, the first draft of the plan called for the procurement of land and sea vessels, 90 body and static cameras, bulletproof vests and nighttime equipment, and five radar platforms to be erected in strategic positions across the territory, Sir Gary wrote.
The plan, he stated, “identified the need for more go-fast interceptor vessels and a next generation of patrol vessel built for long hours at sea.”
Sir Gary added, “The document highlighted that, being more mission-based in approach, this would give value for money; and that sea patrols could not cover all areas of the sea at once, being another reason for acquiring fixed surveillance equipment.
There appears to be no reference in these appendices to sea-based radar barges.”
But over the next few months, the priorities outlined in this plan appeared to change, surprising Mr. Matthews with a new enthusiasm for acquiring the radar barges when that money could be spent on static radar, night vision, and other support to the security operation, Sir Gary wrote, quoting a July 5 email from the former police commissioner to other JTF officials.
A revised draft of the plan, on July 20, 2020, said that it would cost just $55,000 to repair the JTF’s non-functioning interceptor speedboats, Sir Gary wrote.
He added that that this money, which had not been released by the Ministry of Finance, “was urgently sought.”
But that draft also pushed for accepting EZ Shipping’s proposal, which it depicted as a temporary solution until officials could acquire land-based radar platforms to track movement in the territory, according to the COI report.
The draft plan stated the barges would serve as launchpads for police boats to rapidly intercept suspicious vessels, thereby increasing the patrol range of law enforcement and reducing the costs of fuel and maintenance, Sir Gary noted.
“Additionally, while the cost may be deemed significant for the temporary measure, it pales in comparison to the cost of the territory shutting down for a second time if the [coronavirus] is allowed to reach our shores, especially undetected,” the plan added, according to Sir Gary.
Mr. Matthews, however, wrote in the July 5, 2020, email that he “could not understand a decision to invest in radar barges when the [police] did not have the capability to respond adequately to radar sightings,” Sir Gary wrote.
Even after the border security plan was reviewed and adopted by the NSC on July 24 of that year, and the NSC agreed to move forward with the barges, the contract was not put out to tender, Sir Gary wrote.
Instead, Deputy Customs Commissioner Greg Romney approached three other barge owners, but after deciding that neither fit the criteria for two immediately available barges, EZ Shipping was left the only runner, according to the commissioner.
“Mr. Matthews confirmed that he was not consulted in anyway in negotiating the terms with EZ Shipping,” Sir Gary wrote, adding, “It seems that the [Ministry of Finance] dealt with these negotiations.”
About a month later, on Aug. 22, there was a reported incursion by illegal entrants in West End, which Mr. Fahie claimed exacerbated the public’s concerns about securing the borders, Sir Gary noted.
Additionally, Cabinet had not approved the use of the barges, the terms under which they were hired, or the public expenditure on them, and Mr. Jaspert did not know that Mr. Fahie was going to deploy the barges without NSC or JTF approval, the commissioner added.
According to Sir Gary, Mr. Jaspert “said that he was aware of the unsolicited proposal but does not recall having any information beyond that: He only learned of the terms of the arrangement … after the barges were deployed on [Aug. 23].”
For his part, Sir Gary added, “The premier asserted that he had to take the decision, when he did, in the public interest.”
Following Cabinet approval on Oct. 7, a written contract with EZ Shipping was signed on Oct. 14, Sir Gary wrote.
By this time, the contract period, Aug. 23 through Oct. 22, had nearly expired, according the COI report.
A total of $840,000 — split into two payments — was paid to EZ Shipping for this first contract, Sir Gary wrote.
After the first contract expired, Mr. Fahie did not wait for approval before readying funds for the second one, Sir Gary wrote.
On Nov. 23, before the second contract had been approved by Cabinet or the NSC, the former finance minister “approved the financial secretary/accountant general” to make $840,000 available to cover payments to EZ Shipping for deploying its barges for a two-month period that had already begun, according to Sir Gary.
The second contract was approved on Dec. 30 — with a tender waiver by Cabinet — even though it was for the period of Oct. 23 through Dec. 22, which had already lapsed, Sir Gary wrote.
He added, “Governor Jaspert said that he did not believe he was in the BVI at the time of this meeting: He said he was not aware of the particular details relating to this agreement, but was aware of a contract being retrospectively agreed outside of the correct NSC and Cabinet procedures.”
The third contract, of $360,000 for the period from Dec. 24, 2020 through Jan. 23, 2021, was signed on March 18, 2021,two months after the contract period had expired, Sir Gary wrote.
Meanwhile, fissures between Messrs. Fahie and Jaspert were growing wider behind the scenes, as the former premier rebuffed Mr. Jaspert’s offer of UK co-funding for a land-based border surveillance system.
On Sept. 23, Mr. Jaspert circulated a memo to NSC officials outlining the support the UK would provide in line with the border security plan.
Mr. Jaspert’s memo divided the support into the short-term (the HMS Medway stationed near the VI for the following month at no cost the territory); the medium term (remote training and mentoring of JTF members by the UK Marine Border Force); and the long-term (co-funding of a permanent border surveillance system).
Mr. Fahie, however, bristled at the UK’s offer to co-fund a permanent solution.
In a Sept. 25 letter to Mr. Jaspert, Mr. Fahie wrote, “The acquisition of a fully BVI-funded, BVI-owned and BVI-operated border surveillance system will be a milestone for the territory in our march towards self-determination, self-reliance and resilience. … As such, you would agree, it would be a tragedy to deprive the Virgin Islands people of this opportunity.”
Instead, Mr. Fahie asked the former governor to redirect the $300,000 that the UK would have allocated to the permanent surveillance system to other areas of need, according to the letter quoted by Sir Gary.
A letter to Baroness Liz Sugg, then theUK minister for overseas territories, thatMr. Fahie wrote that same day, declared his dissatisfaction with the UK’s offer in much harsher terms.
“I am writing to express my dissatisfaction and outrage with the hijacking of the territory’s sea border protection by your governor on the basis of a grossly inaccurate and exaggerated misrepresentation of the true state and extent of the capabilities of the [VI’s] resources,” Mr. Fahie wrote, according to the COI report.
In light of his findings, Sir Gary recommended that, as soon as possible, the auditor general conduct a full audit of the EZ Shipping contracts, including “the circumstances in which the services of EZ Shipping came to be retained by the BVI government; the extent to which there was compliance with the procurement regime for major contracts, and the justification for any departure; why the services were provided prior to the approval of the Joint Task Force, the National Security Council, the Cabinet and/or the governor; the policy objectives of the contracts, and the efficacy of the contracts in fulfilling those objectives as revealed by the data, and value for money.”
He added that further steps, including any criminal investigation and recovery of public money, can await the outcome of the audit.