Pointing to longstanding concerns about poor governance in the territory, outgoing Governor Gus Jaspert on Monday announced a wide-ranging commission of inquiry that will probe allegations of potential corruption, political intimidation and abuse of public funds, among other issues.
In explaining the reasons for the probe, the governor cited questions about the allocation of money for Covid-19 relief efforts, and expressed apprehension about possible organised crime connected to a record-breaking drug bust last November.
The formal inquiry will be conducted independently by the United Kingdom and led by Sir Gary Hickinbottom, a former UK justice of appeal who also served as a Supreme Court judge in the Falkland Islands and is familiar with Caribbean legal matters, the governor explained.
“You will recall in early December, I spoke openly with the public about the growing number of concerns and allegations relating to the standards of governance in the BVI,” Mr. Jaspert said Monday. “These concerns were put to me by individuals across the community — including senior business leaders, public officers, community groups, media and others. Cumulatively, they paint a worrisome picture.”
The governor added that publicly addressing those concerns led to more “open and honest conversations” about governance standards.
“For the first time, many have felt confident to raise their voice,” he continued. “This is an important conversation for us to have, albeit difficult as those who speak up are too often silenced.”
The governor said other public officers including Deputy Governor David Archer Jr., Auditor General Sonia Webster, Registrar of Interests Victoreen Romney-Varlack, outgoing Police Commissioner Michael Matthews and others shared his concern about such allegations and their own observations.
In the hours after the announcement, Premier Andrew Fahie expressed guarded support for the inquiry, calling on the UK to ensure transparency and fairness throughout the process and urging community members to cooperate.
In his Monday announcement, Mr. Jaspert presented a list of concerns and allegations from the past several years.
Topping the list were “wide concerns over the lack of transparency when it comes to spending public funds, particularly those relating to Covid19 economic stimulus support.”
Last June, after months of community members calling for a plan to support residents hit hardest by the pandemic, government unveiled a $62.9 million stimulus package funded mostly by grants from the Social Security Board. Since then, leaders have not provided the public with a comprehensive account of how the money has been spent.
The governor also spoke about concerns about the possible mismanagement of public projects.
“Successive audit reports have set out practices of political interference, inflating prices and conflicts of interest,” Mr. Jaspert said. “These may have cost the public purse millions of dollars in recent years, with no sign of improvement.”
Additionally, the governor expressed concern about a lack of transparency with government contracts, saying that people have shared complaints about a lack of fair and open competition for work, as well as conflicts of interest and inadequate value for money.
“We need to know how individuals are getting work so we can ensure equal opportunities for all,” Mr. Jaspert said in his announcement.
The governor also described allegations of political interference occurring in some statutory bodies.
“A number of officers from our bodies have come to me with concerns about individuals being replaced by political allies and officers being coerced into circumventing protocols and taking improper practices,” he said.
He added that similar claims extend to the public service, including “serious allegations of attempts of interference in the criminal justice system.”
The final complaint dealt with wide-ranging concerns about intimidation of those in public service, media and society as a whole, showing a “growing culture of fear” in the territory, he said.
Mr. Jaspert added that a push for legislative reform to promote good governance “has faced what I can only conclude are deliberate delays.”
The ruling Virgin Islands Party and the opposition National Democratic Party both campaigned in early 2019 on promoting transparency and accountability in government with steps such as freedom-of-information legislation, integrity legislation and a public register of legislators’ interests.
Those steps have not come to fruition, though last April Mr. Fahie promised a legally binding ministerial code of conduct that has not yet come to the House of Assembly for a vote.
Mr. Jaspert also said that VI institutions aiming to conduct their own inquiries have been prevented from accessing necessary information.
“The state of governance in the BVI requires robust and impartial intervention now,” he said.
In addition to the governance complaints, he added, “there is growing evidence of serious organised crime infiltrating the BVI.”
In support of the claim, he referenced the November seizure of 2.3 tonnes of cocaine worth $250 million in Balsam Ghut — the largest land-based cocaine seizure in British history.
Two police officers have been arrested in connection to the raid, and Mr. Jaspert said in a press conference following the bust that such a large drug operation suggests that organised crime and corruption exist in the territory.
Dominic Raab, the UK’s secretary of state for foreign, commonwealth and development affairs, released a statement on Monday supporting the inquiry and expressing the UK’s “extreme” concern about the state of governance in the territory.
“A consistent and deeply troubling array of concerns have been put to the governor by local institutions and the community,” Mr. Raab said. “Successive attempts have been made to address these concerns through local institutions, many of which have done commendable work to bring them to light. However, the scope and seriousness of the concerns are now beyond local capacity to address.”
He added that the UK government has a constitutional and moral duty to protect the interests of the people of the VI.
“We cannot ignore such serious allegations,” he said.
As part of the commission of inquiry, the judge will have the power to collect evidence and summon witnesses more readily than VI institutions through provisions laid out in the VI’s Commissions of Inquiry Act, according to the governor.
Under the law, a commission can be charged with impartially investigating matters of public concern like corruption, abuses of office, and “serious dishonesty” from elected, public or statutory officials, he explained.
After conducting an investigation into such allegations, the commission will deliver independent recommendations to correct any shortcomings it discovers, according to the governor.
The “instrument of appointment” for the commission, which broadly outlines the scope of Sir Gary’s engagement, was Gazetted yesterday. The document states that the one-man commission should carry out a “full, faithful and impartial inquiry” in order to establish whether corruption exists in the territory — and, if so, how it occurred.
The instrument also empowers Sir Gary to decide if people testifying can give their evidence in private in the interest of public welfare.
Mr. Jaspert also said that he plans to provide further information in a joint press conference with Sir Gary scheduled for tomorrow.
Mr. Raab added that the UK government expects the commissioner to deliver his report to the governor within six months, though the instrument of appointment leaves the door open for the governor to grant a three-month extension.
“At this point, we hope that the UK and BVI will be able to consider the recommendations together in a constructive manner that best serves the people of the BVI,” he said.
The premier responded on Tuesday that government has no objections to a “transparent” inquiry.
“Clearing the air on long-outstanding contentious issues will help us to gain closure in those issues and move forward, ensuring that trust in public institutions is restored and that institutions are further strengthened,” he said.
In another statement released on Monday, Mr. Fahie noted that he has called for further investigations into three projects carried out under the previous administration: the pier park project, BVI Airways, and the Elmore Stoutt High School wall project.
Mr. Fahie said on Tuesday that the inquiry should hold accountable people who have done wrong and clear the names of people falsely accused.
He encouraged any community members with evidence of misconduct to provide it to the commission.
However, he did take issue with portions of the statements from Messrs. Jaspert and Raab that he called “grossly inaccurate,” though he did not say what specific information was incorrect.
Following widespread coverage of the inquiry in the global press, the premier also expressed concern about the probe’s potential effect on the territory’s reputation in the international business realm.
“We have companies and individuals who are today having to face international business associates who are reading uncomplimentary reports about the BVI and its people in the international press,” he said. “The BVI’s international reputation and indeed the reputation of Virgin Islanders and persons who do business in the BVI are affected by these reports that are being syndicated through and republished from the UK media houses.”
He also said he has advised the governor that he believes the inquiry hearings should be broadcast live on the internet “given the international interest that exists in this matter.”
“It is common practice in many jurisdictions for hearings in commissions of inquiry to be broadcast live,” Mr. Fahie said. “This aids the public in having accurate information and in seeing that the inquiry is conducted in a transparent manner with no secrets or hidden agendas.”
He added that the territory’s Commissions of Inquiry Act 1880, which was last amended 50 years ago, provides that inquiries should be held in public unless “there is any contrary direction.”
“Section Nine of the act provides for the commissioner to make rules for the conduct and management of the inquiry,” Mr. Fahie said. “So if there is any doubt about live broadcasts, Section Nine should clear this up.”
Opposition Leader Marlon Penn gave his insight into the situation in a statement issued Tuesday.
Though he avoided taking a strong stance on the inquiry, he said that diplomatic engagement, open dialogue, and honouring commitments are normally the first steps to address misconduct in governance.
“Moving forward with a commission of inquiry with allegations of this nature speaks volumes on where we are in finding resolve,” Mr. Penn said.
He labelled the inquiry a “very concerning development” but said he would need to know more about what exactly the commission expects to deliver before responding in detail.
Members of the current administration, he said, “continue to engage in diversionary tactics and deflect when confronted with the allegations” set out by the governor.
“This administration must realise the gravity of these allegations, and there should be an urgency to work to fully correct the deficiencies in our system,” he said.
During the first opposition press conference of the year in 2020, Mr. Penn decried a rise in political bullying. He said community members were afraid to speak out opposing government actions from fear of victimisation.
“We are at the beginning of what likely will be one of the most pivotal periods in our history, one that will test our unity, reveal our weaknesses, and question the governance of our territory,” he said on Monday. “I understand the anxiety of the moment and ask that you be patient, informed, and engaged.”
This isn’t the first time a governor has launched a commission of inquiry, though previous probes often have been more tightly focused and carried out at the request of the opposition-led Public Accounts Committee.
Most recently, a yearlong inquiry into underpayments for stamp duty uncovered systemic issues that cost the VI government more than $3.4 million over six years. That inquiry stemmed from a Public Accounts Committee report issued in 2006, but following years of delays the probe’s results were not provided to the public until 2012.
Opposition members have called for other inquiries without success in recent years.
In 2015, Governor John Duncan announced after months of speculation that he wouldn’t agree to order a commission of inquiry to investigate the cruise pier project, but he did call for government to bolster transparency and urgently reform its procurement procedures.
Turks and Caicos Islands
The UK has carried out similar investigations in other overseas territories as well, sometimes leading to dramatic repercussions.
After a commission of inquiry reported evidence of widespread corruption in the Turks and Caicos Islands, the UK suspended parts of the TCI constitution and took over day-to-day control in 2009.
It wasn’t until the end of 2012 that the TCI governor gave his seal of approval to enable local elections again.
The territory was tasked with passing a new constitution and new election codes; pursuing criminal and civil action against previous ministers; and reaching other good governance benchmarks.