governor john rankin
Governor John Rankin, who was sworn in as the 14th governor of the Virgin Islands on Friday, shared his insights into the United Kingdom’s corruption inquiry, the VI’s rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine, disaster preparedness and more during a Tuesday interview with the Beacon. (File photo: DANA KAMPA)

Although the Virgin Islands has in place measures to help ensure good governance, Governor John Rankin said they depend on officials having “full respect” for them — and during his nearly six months in office he has not been convinced that the necessary respect exists.

In a 22-page position statement submitted to the Commission of Inquiry and published on June 21, Mr. Rankin details where he thinks that respect has  broken down, including in areas of financial management, the public service, tendering and law enforcement.

He also recommends possible fixes.

The governor was set to appear before the commission last Thursday alongside the Premier Andrew Fahie. However, their appearances were rescheduled, in part to allow them time to prepare responses to allegations made in the position statements, according to Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom.

Cabinet

In his list of challenges he has observed during his time as governor, Mr. Rankin began by describing his experience with Cabinet’s decision-making process as “mixed.”

He detailed occasions on which he felt that Cabinet failed  to follow procedure and lacked transparency, including while awarding contracts, approving legislation and making Cabinet decisions.

“Under the terms of the Cabinet handbook, papers should be presented at least two days in advance,” he wrote. “But in almost all Cabinet meetings I have chaired to date, a number of papers, including on important issues [such as] Covid-19 response, have been submitted late.”

He added that some ministers clearly have not been able to fully read the papers before the Cabinet meeting, leaving them less than fully informed on the issues.

He said he had also observed “insufficient consultation” on matters before Cabinet, specifically the Disaster Management Act 2020, which was passed by the House of Assembly in January.

Mr. Rankin has not yet assented to that law, which would transfer certain responsibilities  for disaster preparedness and  management from the governor to the ministers, and he said previous Governor Gus Jaspert was  not consulted on it.

“I have not assented given its impingement on the responsibilities of the governor,” he said. Finally, he endorsed the publication of full Cabinet minutes as opposed to just a summary of final decisions, which are now the only public record available of Cabinet proceedings.

Tender waivers

Mr. Rankin also expressed concern about “a number of occasions” on which Cabinet has waived tenders in awarding contracts, which in his view have not involved the “exceptional circumstances” required under law to do so.

“On other occasions, it is not clear that contracts have been awarded under any proper procedure or with any cost-benefit  analysis — [such as] the EZ Shipping radar contract, which to the best of my knowledge was  not agreed by either the Joint Task Force or by the National Security Council prior to signature,” he wrote.

As a fix for this, he recommended strengthened procurement  procedures with tender waivers allowed only in specific exceptional circumstances.

The governor described “a number of appointments” agreed by Cabinet where it was “doubtful whether the selected candidate has the requisite qualifications for the job and/or where the political connections of the individual lead to a concern that the individual may have been selected for inappropriate reasons.”

He added that many individuals sit on several different boards “with a risk of potential conflict.” All appointments should be made strictly on the basis of merit following open advertising and transparent processes, he said. In keeping with this advice, government recently advertised several open board positions.

Public service

The governor praised the public service, which he said contains many dedicated and well-qualified officials, but he added, “Their confidence appears to have been eroded by perceived attempts to exert undue political influence on their work or to create uncertainty over lines of authority.”

He also asserted that the Premier’s Office may be interfering with the governor’s constitutional role, describing “attempts to limit interaction by the Governor’s Office with ministries, [such as] by insisting that all such contact be carried out through the Premier’s Office.”

Such attempts, he said, run contrary to section 56 (7) of the Constitution, which allows the governor to request official papers or seek any official information from any minister subject to informing the premier, and section 60 (8), which allows the governor to direct others in matters that involve him or her.

Legislation

Two acts recently brought before the HOA — the Integrity in Public Life Act and Whistleblower Act — would, he said, strengthen good governance and accountability.

However, he noted his “strong concern that as initially drafted, both these pieces of legislation could undermine or cut across the powers of the auditor general, the complaints commissioner and the director of public prosecutions. If left unamended such legislation risks weakening
rather than strengthening good governance.”

The Whistleblower Act was passed with amendments by the  HOA on June 17, four days before the governor’s statement was published.

He also recommended other measures, including a Ministerial Code of Conduct with clear provisions on the duty to respect  the political impartiality of the public service, as well as a Freedom of Information Act to ensure the public access to government information.

Contractor general

The governor also was less complimentary about the Contractor General Act, which was also passed on June 17 and is designed to monitor government contracts.

The governor, whose assent is needed for the law to take effect, said the act is of “questionable necessity.”

“At minimum it should be redrafted to similarly avoid cutting across existing independent institutions and accountability mechanisms,” he said.

As written, the act allows the premier to appoint the contractor general. However, Mr. Rankin recommended that the act should be changed to “stipulate an appointment and removal system for the contractor general which provides clear independence.”

He then addressed the need to add an update, which he did not specify, to Chapter Two of the Constitution on Fundamental Rights and Freedom of Individuals, and address the continued lack of a Human Rights Commission, which the Constitution provides for and for which legislation was introduced in 2017 but never passed.

Given that most current and former government ministers were found by the COI to be in breach of the Register of Interests Act, he also endorsed a public Register of Interests with greater sanctions for non-compliance.

The governor also called for fully audited government accounts and quarterly public account reporting, “to ensure processing of payments is up to date and that the finances are in good order to meet any future
commitments.”

Law enforcement

Asked to rate the strengths and weaknesses of the law enforcement and justice agencies in the VI, the governor said the independence of the DPP and of the police commissioner in their decision making are strengths, but that they require adequate financial resources for their work.

Furthermore, Mr. Rankin expressed doubt about the territory’s readiness for the current hurricane season, given that it is still not fully recovered from past disasters.

“It is clear that there are challenges in delivery of public services,” he said, citing the “huge destruction” caused by the 2017 hurricanes and the severe  impact of Covid-19 restrictions on tourism revenues.

“But the remaining destroyed cars and boats, together with other post-hurricane debris and unrepaired shelters, continued challenges in sewerage and water supply systems, and the lack of a sustainable waste management system, speak to difficulties in meeting the basic needs of BVI as we again approach hurricane season,” he said.

Crime

The governor noted that Royal Virgin Islands Police Force statistics for
2020 report an increase in detection rates and a decrease in crime, as well as record seizures of illicit drugs. Nevertheless, he said, the VI “remains a major route for illegal drugs transhipment, which is highly reputationally damaging.”

“A number of the seizures successfully made in the past year by the
[RVIPF] regrettably point towards involvement by some police officers in the  illicit drugs trade and corrupt practices,” he said. “The volume of such drugs seized also suggests that similar challenges may exist within Immigration, Customs and the Airport and Ports authorities, over which I as governor have no day-to-day authority.”

Border security needs further strengthening, he said, and the territory needs to bring those responsible for “corrupt practices in this
as in any other area” to account.

Another major issue for law enforcement is resources, recruitment and training, he said, noting that former Police Commissioner Michael Matthews noted in his 2020 report that the allocated police budget falls “far below” the reasonable cost required.

Funding for vital repairs and maintenance of police vessels is needed, he said, and the RVIPF currently has 67 roles unfilled — approximately one fifth of the  total workforce.

“Police engagement with the community should continue to be strengthened,  given in particular the information that members of the community may be able to provide in helping to bring those responsible for criminal activities to justice,” Mr. Rankin said.

Finally, he recommended that the Police Act currently under consideration by the HOA also be amended in a number of areas, including to better tackle performance and attendance issues and modernise other human resources processes.

Court cases

According Mr. Rankin, the current backlog in court cases, though primarily caused by the 2017 hurricanes and Covid-19, needs to be addressed by improved monitoring and management of cases, delivery of summonses by the police, and a reduction in unnecessary delays caused in some cases “by unprepared defence counsel.”

He called for further examination of whether some criminal trials should be held without a jury given the small jury pool.

Current rates of pay for lawyers in the DPP’s office and the Attorney General’s  Chambers are too low to attract qualified candidates, he added, echoing observations made by both of those officials in  their own testimonies.

Overall, the governor’s position statement called for “a willingness and determination across all parts of government to tackle corruption wherever it may occur, [and] full respect for the territory’s independent institutions, including, for  example, the auditor general.”

Finally, he called for “transparency in decision-making processes and funding of government activity and better delivery to meet people’s basic needs.”


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