Governor John Rankin announced at a press conference Friday morning that Commission of Inquiry Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom had officially recommended that the United Kingdom take over administration of the Virgin Islands government for a period of at least two years. Government leaders said on Wednesday they’ve proposed creating a VI-led “national unity government” instead to carry out the reforms, which the UK has yet to approve or deny. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

In an attempt to avoid the partial suspension of the Constitution and a temporary takeover of the Virgin Islands government by the United Kingdom, VI political leaders are proposing that they unite to form a “national unity government.”

Acting Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley announced yesterday that Governor John Rankin and Amanda Milling, the UK minister responsible for overseas territories, heard government members out on the proposal in private meetings held this week to determine the best way forward for the territory after the Commission of Inquiry report revealed extensive potential corruption in VI governance.

“Our discussions were constructive, but frank and open,” Dr. Wheatley said. “The minister and the governor expressed their very serious concerns about the report’s findings. I acknowledge the shortcomings of government and very serious problems highlighted by [COI Commissioner] Sir Gary Hickinbottom.”

UK officials have not yet announced whether they will accept the proposal or dissolve the legislature and implement direct rule as recommended by the COI report, which was released to the public on Friday.

The proposal

The proposed temporary government, which Dr. Wheatley said would be in power for 10 to 12 months, would include members of three political parties, with Dr. Wheatley serving as acting premier and minister of finance.

Under the proposed arrangement, Opposition Leader Marlon Penn would replace Carvin Malone as health and social development minister; opposition member Mitch Turnbull would replace Vincent Wheatley as natural resources, labour and immigration minister; Junior Minister of Tourism Sharie de Castro would serve as education, culture, youth affairs, and sports minister; and government backbencher Alvera Maduro-Caines would become junior minister for tourism.

Kye Rymer would remain the transportation, works and utilities minister, and Shereen Flax-Charles would remain the junior minister for trade and economic development, while also assuming responsibilities for agriculture and fisheries.

Deputy House Speaker Neville Smith would retain his role, assuming responsibility for running the House of Assembly following Speaker Julian Willock’s resignation this week.

Vincent Wheatley would serve only as the Ninth District representative, and Carvin Malone would only be a territorial at-large representative, though he would focus on helping give a voice to the people of the First District left without representation in Premier Andrew Fahie’s absence.

“We are stronger working together this way,” Dr. Wheatley said. “I hope Governor Rankin will accept and make the new appointments as required, once the necessary constitutional steps have been taken to initiate the process.”

‘Urgent reforms’

If the plan were approved, he said the government would work closely with the UK to address concerns raised in the inquiry.

“My political colleagues and I are of the view that the urgent reforms needed cannot be delivered as things stand today. We must be honest about that,” he said. “There needs to be a fundamental cultural shift in the way we handle the people’s business as a government.”

He added that the change may be hard and at times painful, but it is necessary to preserve democracy.

Messrs. Penn and Turnbull also voiced their support of a united government and need for change.

“We made very strong advocacy that continued democratic representation is the fundamental right of the citizens and residents of the Virgin Islands and must be preserved,” Mr. Penn said.

He continued, “I wish to express my profound apologies for any complicity and inaction that I have had in contributing to these challenges, and I pledge to do everything in my power to help strengthen our governance and remedy them.”

Mr. Turnbull added, “I stand committed with friend, family or foe to ensure that we eradicate corruption, that we eradicate wrongdoing, and that we put governance structures in place so we can start to take the necessary steps to take ahold of our country.”

Milling response

Ms. Milling issued a written statement shortly after the broadcast, in which she acknowledged the shock and concern expressed by the community this week.

“I have spent the last few days listening to how you feel about the events,” she wrote. “We discussed the recommendations from the report. And I heard what you think is needed — which is putting the best interests of the people of the BVI at the heart of any future decisions.”

She added that the need to address corruption and lack of accountability brought to light in recent days isn’t in question, but leaders need to decide what will be done about it.

“Action is needed now to strengthen the foundations of the territory; deliver a better public service; maintain a strong and resilient economy; and create better opportunities for the people of the BVI,” she said. “This is what I heard you want during my visit.”

She continued, “There is an urgent need to fix the systems, processes, laws and norms to ensure that money spent by the government — your money — is better spent on roads, education, hospitals and better public services and not misused as the COI has found. We now have the opportunity to do this; to build a government that delivers for its people in a fair, transparent, and accountable way.”

Ms. Milling said she has “a lot to consider” as she returns to the UK to meet with Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss.

Dr. Wheatley said he would provide an update on the governor’s response to this proposal by the end of the week.

Report release

Mr. Rankin released the COI report on Friday, the day after Mr. Fahie was arrested in Miami on charges of conspiracy to import cocaine and conspiracy to launder money.

The governor said the premier’s arrest was not a result of the report, but because of the news he felt the public should know about the recommendations and be able to read the full report now instead of in June as initially planned.

“The commissioner concludes that with limited exceptions, governance in areas under the control of government ministers is, at best, very poor, with principles such as openness and transparency not simply absent, but positively shunned,” Mr. Rankin said during a Friday press conference. “Proper procedures, checks and balances are absent, or patently inadequate, or ignored or bypassed. He states that the evidence in this regard is overwhelming and extends to almost all areas of government.”

The full report was released shortly after the press conference.

Over the weekend, community members took to social media and the streets to break down the report’s recommendations and debate whether a temporary UK takeover would help root out corruption, hinder the path toward self-governance, or have other unknown consequences.

Mr. Rankin said Friday that he received the COI’s report on April 4, and he originally intended to make it public in June after discussing it with VI party leaders and UK officials in May.

However, after United States authorities arrested Mr. Fahie — as well as BVI Ports Authority Managing Director Oleanvine Maynard and her son Kadeem Maynard — he decided to act sooner. He said he was made aware of the arrest last Thursday, the same day as the public.

“I had no prior information on it whatsoever,” he said. “This was a US-led operation in which neither my office nor the UK had any involvement.”

What it entails

The COI reported finding evidence that corruption, abuse of office or other serious dishonesty likely took place in the territory’s government in recent years.

To help rectify the situation, Sir Gary recommended the dissolution of the HOA and cessation of ministerial government “for an initial period of two years.” In the HOA’s place, the governor would assume leadership with assistance from an advisory council made up of senior public officers and others who “reflect BVI civic society.”

The plan was part of four overarching recommendations the COI made, in addition to 45 others Sir Gary said are largely designed to improve governance.

The COI also recommended an early and speedy review of the VI Constitution with the goal of “establishing a Constitution that will enable the people of the BVI to meet their aspirations, including those in respect of self-government within the context of modern democracy.”

Sir Gary’s other two main recommendations include the “curtailment of the open-ended discretionary powers held by public officials including Cabinet” and “a series of audits and investigations which may give rise in due course to further steps, including in relation to criminal investigations.”

He was unimpressed with recently enacted good-governance measures like the Whistleblower Act and Integrity in Public Life Act, which he said appeared to be largely a reaction to the COI’s work despite Mr. Fahie’s claims otherwise.

Sir Gary also expressed strong scepticism that such measures would be effectively implemented.

“With a particularly heavy heart, I have concluded that, unless the most urgent and drastic steps are taken, the current unhappy situation — with elected officials deliberately ignoring the tenets of good governance giving rise to an environment in which the risks of dishonesty in relation to public decision making and funding continue unabated — will go on indefinitely,” Sir Gary wrote. “In my view, that is wholly unacceptable. It is not simply that the people of the BVI deserve better — which they do — but the UK government owes them an obligation not only to protect them from such abuses but to assist them to achieve their aspirations for self-government as a modern democratic state.”

‘Serious dishonesty’

In the Friday press conference, Mr. Rankin highlighted several areas investigated by the COI team, including failure by HOA members to register their interests; possible “corruption, abuse of office or other serious dishonesty” with government grants awarded in recent years; specific government projects including the failed BVI Airways launch and Sea Cows Bay harbour development; and “over manipulation” with appointing statutory board members.

“He found overwhelming evidence that the independence of such boards has been ‘severely — and, at times, cynically and with apparent disdain — eroded,’” Mr. Rankin noted.

The report also found problems with possible serious dishonesty in the disposal of Crown lands; the unlawful granting of residence and belongership; a particularly small jury pool for trials; and failings in good governance attributable to poor policy planning in the public service.

In summarising these findings, Mr. Rankin said, “I do not shirk my responsibilities for the public service, but in his report the commissioner found the submissions by the government to be anything but compelling.”

He continued, “The commissioner notes corruption in the police force among a minority of officers but welcomes the commitment of the current police commissioner to tackle corrupt conduct, with full support from me.”

The governor said while answering questions from the press on Friday that individuals also expressed serious concerns about the Customs Department, but the COI didn’t have time to do an in-depth review during its broad investigation.

Asked what he would like the public to know about the report, he said, “I would like people to read it for themselves. Read it carefully. Weigh it and consider it. But I believe it is a very stalwart bit of work. … I believe this report is a thorough and credible report.”

Deciding a way forward

The governor made clear on Friday that no final decisions had been made about a UK takeover or other COI recommendations, and said leaders from the VI government, opposition members, and representatives from the UK would be debating how best to proceed in the coming days.

Ms. Milling, the UK minister responsible for the overseas territories, came to the VI on Sunday to engage with VI leaders on what the future holds, according to her Twitter account.

Neither she nor Mr. Rankin have provided a timeline for decisions on the way forward.

Despite Sir Gary’s strong condemnation of apparent corruption in the public service, police force and other areas of government, the governor expressed optimism.

“As governor, I pledge that the best interests of the people of BVI will continue to be my overriding concern, ensuring transparent, honest and open governance in accordance with the rule of law to strengthen the foundations of the British Virgin Islands,” he said. “I believe that the COI report is a vital and hugely valuable contribution towards the achievement of better governance in the BVI in the interest of the people of the territory, and I commend it to you.”

Acting premier’s response

The acting premier said in a statement Friday that he didn’t believe a UK takeover is necessary, , a position he has maintained throughout discussions with UK leaders. Dr. Wheatley, who was also voted the new chairman of the Virgin Islands Party over the weekend, added that he had received a copy of the report on April 27. Of the recommended suspension, he said, “I know that this will be of great concern to many persons, and I too am very concerned about this recommendation.”

Dr. Wheatley said he wrote immediately to the governor and UK ministers about what the step would mean for democracy in the VI.

“The report makes a number of recommendations aimed at reforming and strengthening the systems of government in the Virgin Islands,” he said. “In my view, this can be achieved without the partial or full suspension of the Constitution in which direct rule would apply.”

He continued, “There is much more to do, but the good working relationship between the governor and the ministers of Cabinet is at the heart of the UK-BVI modern partnership in which there can be closer cooperation to achieve the standards we collectively desire.”

Deputy Governor David Archer also issued a statement on Friday.

“As this situation unfolds, we must remain focused on the business of the territory and committed to the work of the public service,” he said. “Be assured that I am working closely with His Excellency the governor, the acting premier and permanent secretaries to ensure that there is no disruption to the continuity of the public service.”

He added that he would call an extraordinary meeting of the public service this week.