Auditor General Sonia Webster was cross-examined last week by Queen’s Counsel Sir Geoffrey Cox about her report on the government’s farming and fishing stimulus programme. (File photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

In a first for the Commission of Inquiry, Auditor General Sonia Webster was called on Oct. 20 to be cross-examined by Queen’s Counsel Sir Geoffrey Cox on behalf of the attorney general and elected ministers.

Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom allowed Sir Geoffrey to ask about five topics that afternoon, mostly in relation to testimony Ms. Webster gave during previous COI hearings.

Many of the attorney’s questions centred around the government’s pandemic stimulus package for farmers and fishers, which Ms. Webster blasted in an audit report.

The programme, which she alleged lacked transparency and accountability, overspent by almost $5 million and granted up to $40,000 to applicants including several public officers who collected pay throughout the pandemic.

Fishers grants

One of Sir Geoffrey’s topics was Ms. Webster’s claim that three fishermen who work together in one boat each received grants for the same equipment.

The fishermen weren’t registered captains, and they didn’t have boats registered under their names, according to the auditor general.

Sir Geoffrey, however, questioned whether she checked if those fishermen had owned boats that were destroyed in Hurricane Irma.

She said she wasn’t provided with any contact information and that any boats should have been registered.

Sir Geoffrey asked, “Why was it not possible simply to call these people or to get in touch with them? Their details are with the ministry because they are registered as crew to that vessel: Why not just call them and check whether they were making fraudulent claims or not? Or making claims, as you put it, for the same vessel for the same equipment?”

Ms. Webster responded, “Because, sir, the contact details may not have been in the register. There would be no indication if they are captains or masters. And as such, they’re nonqualifying. We have not received any evidence from the Premier’s Office that these two other people actually owned boats. So then simply saying that that is a case doesn’t mean that is the case. We need evidence.”

She added that the Premier’s Office had her draft report for nearly a month, during which time it could have submitted documents showing that the fishermen were licensed captains with their own vessels.

“They had the opportunity to come back to us and say, ‘Hey, this is not the case.’ They did not do that,” she said. “So they cannot at this stage come to us and say, ‘Well, you know, this is wrong.’”

She also chastised Sir Geoffrey for suggesting that the fishermen had their own boats without providing evidence.

“You are making statements that are unsupported … and we have not received any evidence of anything that you have said, and I think that is reckless,” she said. “You say you have evidence of something else: Produce it; send it to us. It’s not sufficient and it is not satisfactory for you to come and sit there and say you have something else and not send it to us.”

COI Counsel Bilal Rawat interjected and said that no evidence of Sir Geoffrey’s claim had been provided to the COI either.

He asked to be given the documents the next day, and Sir Geoffrey agreed.

Sir Gary added that he had been pressing for the same information for some time, but that the documents weren’t relevant to the questions for the rest of last week’s hearings.

“What I would like is for the questions to be asked on a procedurally fair basis,” Sir Gary said.

Sir Geoffrey also questioned the timing of the report’s completion. Though the Premier’s Office permanent secretary asked on June 21 for a one-week extension to submit information, Ms. Webster turned in the audit on the same day — a week before Ms. Webster appeared before the COI for a hearing, he alleged.

“The Premier’s Office was asking you for a delay, was asking you for time, and you decided that on the 21st of June, one week before you were due to give evidence, you would cut off the time that the Premier’s Office would have,” he said.

‘Nothing for 11 months’

Ms. Webster responded that the Premier’s Office previously had asked for more time and that she had already provided more time than she had provided to other ministries.

“That was more than sufficient time,” she added. “We had been asking and asking, and they sent us nothing for 11 months.”

Sir Geoffrey, though, pressed further.

“If you had given that week, those reports would not have been finalised to put before the inquiry, would they?” he stated.

She responded, “Are we to assume that within a week they’re going to send us something? If you had given me sufficient reason to give [the PS] another week, she would have gotten it.”

Ms. Webster went on to say that the audit was completed so that her office could move on with other work, including government’s annual financial statements.

“When we are doing our audits, the intention is to do the audit to completion and finish as many of them as possible so that when we get the financial statements we can move into that without having these sitting on our desk,” she added. “And we were placed in a situation where the Premier’s Office was not facilitating our request, and at that stage we still needed to go ahead and complete our audits.”

Sir Geoffrey pressed on, noting that if she had granted the one-week extension, the draft report wouldn’t have made it to the commission. He asked if the timing was a coincidence.

Ms. Webster said that she suspected the Premier’s Office deliberately delayed providing information.

“It was in my mind that the Premier’s Office was actually using delay tactics to avoid the reports from being finalised,” she said.

“And thus not be available for the commission?” he asked.

“And thus not be available for the commission or anything else,” she answered. “When we’re doing our audits, we’re not doing it for the commission: We’re not doing it for any individuals. We’re doing it because it’s our job.”

‘Falsify’ and ‘inflate’

Moving on, Sir Geoffrey took issue with Ms. Webster’s use of the words “falsify” and “inflate” in her report.

But she stood by her account, explaining that public officials intentionally changed figures sent to the Treasury, thereby falsifying information.

“What we know from the policy is that [grant applicants] were to submit what they needed, their wants, and that would be taken into consideration in terms of what would be paid, and that is in the criteria that was publicised,” she said. “We saw the amounts in these submissions had been changed and then sent to the Treasury. And as an accountant, you don’t do that. That’s the kind of thing that puts you in prison.”

But Sir Geoffrey questioned why she would use the words “falsify” and “inflate” even though the programme could have been using a “banded system” that he implied could have explained the changes to the figures.

“The actual requests for the sums of money that were being made by applicants were to be taken account in the allocation of the money,” Sir Geoffrey said. “It didn’t mean that it needed to exactly equate to what they requested, did it? It’s perfectly legitimate to adopt a banded system, wouldn’t it, for ease and speed?”

Ms. Webster said no policy for a banded system was approved by Cabinet.

“What has been approved by Cabinet is that individuals are to bring in what they need, bring in the estimates, and those would be taken into consideration in making you a payment,” she added. “In fact, what was approved by Cabinet is that based on that information, the vendors would be paid on your behalf.”

But Sir Geoffrey noted that many other countries had also used a “blunt-edged” approach for dealing with emergency pandemic situations, and he argued that Ms. Webster’s report didn’t account for that fact.

The accountant general, however, stood by her criticisms.

Governor involvement?

Sir Geoffrey also asked Ms. Webster about a statement she made during a June 18 COI hearing explaining that it was her decision to follow through with the investigation on the farming and fishing stimulus.

She told Sir Geoffrey that she was already investigating the pandemic stimulus measures when the governor requested an audit in June 2020. The audit then became a priority, she said.

Sir Geoffrey asked her what preliminary review was conducted to determine that the stimulus measures should be audited.

“One of the main issues why we flagged this is because it’s discretionary spending, and with discretionary spending there are always issues,” Ms. Webster explained.

Asked about the former governor’s involvement in the audit, Ms. Webster said she typically met with him every six to eight weeks, but he didn’t ask how the
audit or any other “pandemic reports” were progressing.

VINPP report

Sir Geoffrey then turned to Ms. Webster’s report on the Virgin Islands Neighbourhood Partnership Project.

He asked why the report wasn’t published shortly after it was completed if it was of significance, as she said in prior testimony.

Mr. Webster explained that she submitted the report to the ministry, which should have started a process resulting in the report being made public in the House of Assembly.

But that never happened in this case.

“Sir, my job is to do the audit, complete the report, pass it on to the ministry, and then their job commences there,” Ms. Webster said, later adding, “It is their job to take the report forward.”

Ms. Webster said the report also was set to be published on her office’s website in 2011, but technical limitations caused a delay.

“The person managing the website moved abroad,” she explained. “The report was published earlier this year on the website for the first time.”

Sir Geoffrey asked why there wasn’t any urgency on her part to make sure the report was spread widely to the public.

“You mentioned a programme where something is so blatantly false, so blatantly wrong,” he said. “You said we can’t sit on it.”

Mr. Webster, however, stood by her position that it’s her job to get the report done and that the ministry’s job commences from there.

She added that she refused to “take any responsibility for the fact that [the ministry] did not take the report forward.”

Sir Geoffrey asked, “But this was a very controversial report, was it not?”

She replied, “They’re all very controversial, and I don’t know why you’re focused on this one, because they’re all very controversial.”

She explained that she was engaged in multiple important audits at the time, and that the ministry didn’t take further action on the VINPP report.

“I’m not sitting in my office wondering what’s happening with VINPP Report,” she said. “I am not. I have other things to do.”