Governor John Rankin has instructed Police Commissioner Mark Collins (pictured above) to start several criminal investigations recommended by the recently published Commission of Inquiry report, Mr. Rankin announced on May 12. (File photo: DANA KAMPA)

Governor John Rankin has instructed Police Commissioner Mark Collins to launch several criminal investigations recommended by the recently published Commission of Inquiry report. The investigations will probe four areas, Mr. Rankin announced on May 12:

– allegations that the Premier’s Office obstructed investigations by the director of the Internal Audit Department into Covid-19 assistance programmes;

– public money spent on the Sea Cows Bay Harbour Development Project and the Virgin Islands Neighbourhood Partnership Project;

– public money expended on the disposal of a parcel of Crown land in Road Town; and

– possible corruption within Her Majesty’s Customs.

“I am determined that investigations should be held in line with the Commission of Inquiry report and that any public official who has engaged in criminal wrongdoing should be brought to justice and held accountable under the law,” the governor said. “I am also determined that where possible, public funds that may have been misused in relation to the projects under investigation should be recovered and used instead for programmes that benefit all members of our community.”

Covid programme

Internal Auditor Dorea Corea told the COI in July 2021 about her investigation into four parts of the $62.9 million Covid-19 stimulus programme that former Premier Andrew Fahie unveiled in May 2020.

Ms. Corea strongly criticised the effort, stating that some residents had made multiple applications and received funds from different prongs of the programme, apparently taking advantage of the lack of checks and balances within ministries.

She also complained that the Premier’s Office did not cooperate with her efforts to provide monthly reports about the programmes as directed by Cabinet.

“Despite requests to the financial secretary and the permanent secretary in the Premier’s Office, her department received little or no information in relation to these programmes from the relevant arms of government,” the COI report notes.

The COI also found that Premier’s Office Permanent Secretary Dr. Carolyn O’Neal Morton “appears to have adopted the approach that she would control the IAD director’s access to information.”

Citing such behaviour, the COI reported “clear evidence of serious obstruction of the IAD director in the performance of her statutory duties.”

Obstructing the department’s work is a crime, the report adds.

Accordingly, Sir Gary recommended considering a criminal investigation.

PS now on leave

Meanwhile, Dr. O’Neal Morton has been sent on leave, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said on May 13 during a press conference.

A former secretary for the Ministry of Education and Culture, Dr. O’Neal Morton came out of retirement to take up the Premier’s Office post in March 2020.

The premier said further questions about her leave would have to be directed to the deputy governor.

Dr. Wheatley also confirmed the leave of a “rogue” public officer who allegedly sent unauthorised correspondence on Premier’s Office letterhead requesting diplomatic immunity for Mr. Fahie as he awaits trial in Miami on drug and money-laundering conspiracy charges.

“It appears that the preparation and sending out of the correspondence were the actions of a rogue public officer who acted without the authorisation or the knowledge of myself as acting premier or the permanent secretary,” Dr. Wheatley said on May 4. “The content of this letter regarding diplomatic immunity for Honourable Fahie does not reflect the position of the Premier’s Office or the government of the Virgin Islands.”

At the time, Dr. Wheatley also said that Dr. O’Neal Morton was working with Deputy Governor David Archer to investigate the matter.

On May 13, he said, “As I’ve been told, that [‘rogue’] officer is now on leave from the Premier’s Office while that investigation ensues.”

Two projects

The VI Neighbourhood Partnership Project and the Sea Cows Bay Harbour Development Project were also included in the investigations announced by Mr. Rankin.

The NPP was unveiled in February 2009 by Mr. Fahie, who at the time was the education and culture minister.

Mr. Fahie said the taxpayer-funded programme — which was administered by consultant Claude Skelton-Cline — was designed to assist at-risk youths by providing grants to churches and similar organisations, but it was eventually halted after questions arose about its results.

The COI examined a report by the auditor general that alleged the NPP had produced limited results and failed to properly document how it spent nearly $600,000 paid to Mr. Skelton-Cline’s consultancy over the course of about two years.

SCB habour project

In July 2021, the COI also called now-Opposition Leader Julian Fraser to testify about the SCB development, which began in 1991 when the Ministry of Natural Resources established a steering committee to consider a reclamation plan for the harbour.

The COI hearing largely centred around concerns raised in a 2014 auditor general report that detailed the project’s origins and raised questions about various issues: The overseeing ministry changed midstream; progress stalled for years; government awarded petty contracts without consulting Cabinet even when cost estimates skyrocketed; Mr. Fraser’s siblings were involved; and several related contracts weren’t fulfilled before government pulled the plug on the whole endeavour. The COI report recommended that criminal investigations and/or attempts to recover public money be considered for both projects.

Additionally, Mr. Rankin noted that criminal investigations into the Elmore Stoutt High School perimeter wall project and the BVI Airways project are already under way. The COI recommended that both investigations be allowed to run their course.

Land investigation

Mr. Rankin also asked Mr. Collins to investigate the public money expended on Crown land Parcel 310 of Block 2938B in Road Town.

“In late 2019, on the recommendation of the Minister Hon. Vincent Wheatley and with Cabinet approval, Parcel 310 was leased by the BVI government to Bevis Sylvester on a 50-year lease at considerably below the market value,” the COI report states. “Whilst the position with regard to that parcel appears to have been clear and straightforward by late 2019, the minister justified this arrangement by reference to a dispute over the parcel.”

Sir Gary wrote that records of Crown land disposal, particularly in this instance, “proved extremely difficult to obtain.”

He recommended the matter be referred to appropriate authorities for potential criminal investigation and/or recovery of public funds.

He added, “I recommend all disposals of Crown land, whether outright, by lease or otherwise, over the last three years be the subject of a full audit performed by the auditor general or some other independent person or body instructed by her, and a report on that audit be presented to the governor.”

Customs probe

The governor also asked the police commissioner to probe possible corruption within Her Majesty’s Customs as recommended by the COI.

He didn’t provide further details, but the COI reviewed the Import Duty Partial Payment Plan and the CAPS and Courier Trading Declaration Process at the agency.

The inquiry identified multiple issues with officers’ efforts to recover fees and with potential conflicts of interest.

“The COI had neither the time nor the forensic resources to conduct an in-depth investigation of the practices within HM Customs. Consequently, I am not in a position to say whether or not there is conduct within HM Customs that falls into paragraph one of my Terms of Reference,” Sir Gary wrote. “However, although the HMC Commissioner Wade Smith was less willing to accept the wrongdoing in the ranks of customs officers to the extent that the [police commissioner] accepts it in the ranks of the [police force] — and did not accept that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the working of HM Customs — I consider it is equally worrying.”

The COI team also recommended a sweeping review of law enforcement and justice systems including the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force, Financial Investigation Agency, HM Customs, the Immigration Department, the Prison Service, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and possibly the Attorney General’s Chambers and the courts.

Additionally, it advised that all serving customs and immigration officers “at all levels of seniority be subject to full vetting by an independent agency.”