The Commission of Inquiry questioned Customs Commissioner Wade Smith last month about the use of EZ Shipping’s barges for border control, among other topics, according to a hearing transcript published June 2. (FACEBOOK: EZ SHIPPING)

During a hearing before the Commission of Inquiry last month, former Police Commissioner Michael Matthews slammed the government’s decision to rent three barges to help patrol the territory’s borders in the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr. Matthews — who said $2 million was allocated for the security plan at one point — explained that he thought the barges did not provide good value for money around the time when the police launch boat had been off the water for 18 months awaiting $36,000 for repairs from the Ministry of Finance, according to a newly released transcript of the May 20 closed-door hearing.

“Now, I cannot fathom for one minute why the police launch would be left off the water — that the police would have no capability other than a small rib, which is all we had going at the time — and yet we were going to invest in these radars that we then didn’t have the capability of responding to,” he said.

The transcript of Mr. Matthews’ hearing was one of four released within the past eight days that detailed COI proceedings where he and three customs officers were grilled about the EZ Shipping contract and other border control measures during the pandemic.

Customs Commissioner Wade Smith was summoned on May 11, according to a slightly redacted transcript of his closed-door hearing released on June 2.

In speaking to Mr. Smith, COI Counsel Bilal Rawat probed how the EZ Shipping arrangement came about in the first place, whether any other companies were capable of meeting officers’ needs, what the costs were, and Mr. Matthews’ push to find a cheaper option.

On May 20, the COI put similar questions to Mr. Matthews, former Customs Commissioner Leslie Lettsome, and Deputy Customs Commissioner Greg Romney, according to transcripts released on June 8.

The transcripts were the last three outstanding ones from the series of closed-door hearings held throughout May.

Pandemic response

Mr. Smith — who appeared alongside Solicitor General JoAnn Williams-Roberts — wasn’t in charge of Customs at the outset of the pandemic last year, but in August 2020 he resumed the position, which he previously had held for more than a decade before stepping down to run in the 2019 general election.

Asked about his responsibilities in the role during the pandemic, Mr. Smith said he provided updates to the National Security Council on how law enforcement was working to suppress Covid19. He also headed the Joint Task Force, the group of officers from Customs, the Immigration Department, and the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force working jointly to secure the borders amid the territory-wide lockdown, he explained.

Following a line of questioning also put to Premier Andrew Fahie and other summoned witnesses last month, the COI team asked Mr. Smith about how the JTF decided to utilise the services of EZ Shipping.

Mr. Smith said the first contract began on Aug. 28, 2020. It was awarded, he said, after EZ Shipping had reached out unsolicited about providing vessels.

“Through the [Joint Task Force] it was then decided that you would need to source the input from the other companies that provide a similar service,” Mr. Smith explained. “In the BVI there are, I think, about three or four companies that have that type of equipment that could provide that service, one being Global Ocean [Shipping Inc], and my deputy wrote to them.”

He said another company to show interest was Caribbean Transport.

Mr. Smith said Global Ocean owner Samuel Ricardo Leonard proposed $15,000 per day for one vessel, while another company declined due to other commitments. He later said he believed he never met with Global Ocean because of the price it submitted and because its crafts weren’t the ideal design for the purpose.

Mr. Rawat requested records of Mr. Romney’s efforts to contact the other companies, Joint Task Force meeting minutes, and performance reports on EZ Shipping, which Mr. Smith said he would provide.

Unsolicited proposal

The commission also noted that plans for a marine radar platform were included in the JTF’s Comprehensive Border Security Plan.

Asked if that plan was ever publicised, Mr. Smith said no. He added that the plan was finalised in June 2020.

Mr. Rawat asked, “Is it right that the public did not know that there was a plan to find marine radar platforms?”

“At the time, no,” Mr. Smith replied. “There was pretty urgent response, and it was not publicly known at the time.”

Mr. Smith noted that EZ Shipping’s proposal came in May 2020, when Mr. Lettsome was acting as Customs commissioner. Mr. Rawat pressed further.

“It seems a bit strange that at the same time that the government is internally expressing an interest in marine radar platforms but has not said anything public that a company should send in an unsolicited proposal to the government,” Mr. Rawat said.

Then he asked the commissioner if he had any conversations after regaining his post about how EZ Shipping made its proposal.

Mr. Smith replied, “When I learned about it, I asked my deputy, and he made it clear that he had not received a copy of it, but he was aware that there was an unsolicited request, and the commissioner of police, I think, communicated that to him, but he had not received a copy at that time.”

Later, he added, “As I reflect, during that time, it was made public that the government was seeking marine assets to assist with the border protection. It was made public.”

He also recalled proposals from smaller vessels, including one for Midnight Express for $3,000 per day and from the 36-foot Intrepid for $20,000 per week.

“Those power boats that were provided unsolicited, … they couldn’t cut it,” he said. “They were 40 feet. The waters are rough. You cannot give that 24-hour coverage.”

Counting the cost

The commission then pointed to a document indicating that Mr. Matthews, then the police commissioner, had suggested that he previously had made use of boats as surveillance platforms with no service charge, only paying the costs of fuel and provisions.

Mr. Rawat asked Mr. Smith if this were true, and if officers were still using that arrangement in early 2020.

Mr. Smith replied, “I’ve never instructed my officers to receive any gifts for free, especially when it comes to dealing with these entities that we have to regulate and supervise.”

But he said any such decisions would ultimately be up to the Ministry of Finance.

Mr. Smith later said he remembered that negotiations for EZ Shipping’s services came to $14,000 per day for three barges. He also explained the value of the vessels’ capabilities to go beyond the channels and stay out all day as opposed to two to three hours a shift on the smaller boats, especially factoring in the safety of the officers.

The commission also asked Mr. Smith to explain why government went from requiring one vessel to requiring three. He said the decision came down to how much area the barges could cover, and the third stationary vessel allowed them to monitor the south side of the borders.

Mr. Smith said EZ Shipping ceased providing services at the end of January.

Redactions

The transcript included a few small redactions in reference to options considered by the Territory Security Advisory Group for a border security control command centre.

Mr. Rawat said S&D Security and Alarms Systems submitted an unsolicited proposal for providing surveillance capabilities, including radar thermal cameras, for a total cost of $2.35 million.

COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom asked about the proposed system, and Mr. Smith answered that it was meant to be a land-based security solution that is more permanent than the radar barges. Details of the radar locations were redacted.

Sir Gary noted that in the documents supplied to the commission, Midnight Marine Holdings Limited — also owned by EZ Shipping owner Clyde Chalwell — gave an estimate of $5.7 million for fortifying the border.

“A number of other companies followed them and made their proposals for a permanent solution,” Mr. Smith said, listing Caribbean Security, Russell Jones, Digicel, and Top Priority Security.

He said Customs prepared a request for quotation through the Ministry of Finance for a vendor able to produce surveillance equipment.

While the private barges served their purpose in the short term, he said, the long-term plan for improving border security focuses largely on using a government-owned vessel staffed by a trained marine unit.

Last three transcripts

The COI addressed similar topics during the May 20 hearings with Messrs. Matthews, Lettsome and Romney, according to the transcripts of the closed-door proceedings published on June 8.

Messrs. Romney and Lettsome gave their testimony simultaneously, answering questions mostly about EZ Shipping.

Mr. Rawat explained that the two were summoned because previous testimony from government officials was unclear about how the contract with the company originated.

Mr. Lettsome, who joined the department in 1977, served as acting customs commissioner and the Joint Task Force chair at the start of the pandemic and currently reports to the deputy customs commissioner. Mr. Romney joined the department in 1990.

During the hearing, the commission team asked about their roles in the EZ Shipping contract.

Besides conducting regular business with the barge owner and knowing him as a member of the community, both said they did not maintain a close personal relationship with EZ Shipping owner Clyde Chalwell.

Citing a packet of information provided to the COI, Mr. Rawat said the daily rate for using two ships, Midnight Stone and Midnight Chief, at one point was listed at $17,000.

He then quoted an email from Mr. Matthews dated May 15, 2020 that said the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force’s efforts to secure the borders early in the pandemic were “supported by volunteers from the charter industry and private sector who have loaned us boats and captains for mobile control and static platforms. This has included access to radar on board such vessels for the monitoring of shipping at key strategic locations.”

The police commissioner had claimed that using volunteers and existing government vessels would provide virtually cost-free security, according to Mr. Rawat.

Mr. Romney said Customs paid to use two interceptor vessels early in the pandemic, while the RVIPF separately procured a vessel from the charter industry. However, he said later in the hearing that Customs also utilised the mostly free boats.

Permanent surveillance

Mr. Romney explained that in the months immediately following the territory’s shutdown last March, the Joint Task Force had decided it was not in favour of using barges for border security because of the high cost.

He said the JTF would have preferred to invest in a more permanent radar system for surveillance, as outlined in the Comprehensive Border Security Plan.

Mr. Rawat asked Mr. Lettsome, “Would it be fair to say that, at that point, July 2020, the Joint Task Force had been able to access free vehicle boats as platforms, that were essentially provided free, with just costs for fuel and provisions?”

Mr. Lettsome said yes, specifically for the police force.

The Customs leaders said they did eventually end up using the private boats as well.

“I would say there was pandemonium here in the territory — what do we need to do to make this place safe?” Mr. Romney said. “It was not a time to actually debate or try to argue a point of that nature. So, yes, we did utilise the sailboats at a certain time.”

Mr. Lettsome added, “But if it was under normal circumstances, we would not accept those vessels.”

When the unsolicited proposal came from EZ Shipping in May 2020, Mr. Romney said, charter companies had been saying they couldn’t indefinitely offer their boats without compensation.

Mr. Lettsome added that the National Security Council directed the JTF to investigate the proposal and explore other options. The task force then researched the costs of the potential barge companies’ services, he added.

The companies researched included Global Ocean, Caribbean Transport, and Second Man — though the owner of Second Man said his barge was not operational, according to Mr. Romney.

Mr. Romney said later in the hearing that it was up to the National Security Council to decide which proposal to accept and up to the Ministry of Finance to make any final budgetary decisions.

Both he and Mr. Lettsome reported to the NSC last year when invited, he added.

Ultimately, government awarded three contracts to EZ Shipping, the first starting Aug. 23, 2020.

Mr. Rawat also asked why the territory went from utilising three barges to two in January. Mr. Romney said the decision came largely because the borders reopened in December, and immigration officers needed to return to their usual posts monitoring different ports.

“So, we had a reduction in manpower,” he said.

The third and final contract ended on Jan. 23.

Records

Mr. Rawat also asked why the JTF didn’t record minutes while planning the territory’s pandemic response.

Mr. Romney replied, “During the pandemic, we were basically on Zoom calls, WebEx calls. There was no secretary appointed or anything of that nature, so we didn’t take any minutes.”

Mr. Rawat asked, “Did you record your action points, your decisions of what you would do next in any document or any emails at all?”

Mr. Romney replied, “At times, yes.”

“And who would have been responsible for recording the action points in an email?” Mr. Rawat asked.

“We had no one appointed to take particular action. Basically, it was voluntary,” Mr. Romney responded, adding that he would occasionally send emails to other members of the task force.

Mr. Romney said the JTF began keeping minutes when Mr. Smith came onboard in mid-August.

Police commissioner

Mr. Matthews, who served as police commissioner from 2016 until his retirement this April, appeared separately for his hearing on May 20.

He was the initial person chairing the JTF, and he also served as a non-voting member of the NSC.

Immediately after the border closure last year, he said, he tasked police Superintendent of Operations St. Claire Amory with approaching private sector boat owners to see what was available to help cover the borders out on the water.

“I don’t recall seeing specific correspondence addressed to me on it, but it was brought to my attention that people had also reached out voluntarily and had contacted people within the force saying, ‘We would be willing to go and sit out there,’” he said.

He continued, “Now, bearing in mind that the context of this is when the border is shut down, we had a lot of charter boats with a lot of crews on them trapped here, and they were all required to sit on buoys out in the channel or in the bays around the islands, and they had to sit it out for 14 days. Once we had shut the borders, we gave people a chance to sort of get a few groceries, and then it was quarantine before we would allow anyone to move around again.”

He said one boat stuck near Norman Island offered to turn on its radar and keep an eye out.

“That was the beginning of us getting an understanding actually of what the charter industry might be able to do to help us and why we then approached the charter industry direct,” he added, noting that the boats helped monitor particularly vulnerable areas nearest the border with the United States VI. As of May 2020, at least two catamarans were assisting, he said.

‘Literally desperate’

Mr. Matthews added that he conversed with the Ministry of Finance about hiring boats.

“We were just literally desperate to get law enforcement officers out on the water to get some coverage,” he said.

Around that time, he said, he rejected Mr. Chalwell’s proposal for EZ Shipping’s services, citing poor value for money from his budget.

“I certainly could not afford it within the police budget,” he said. “And the costs I saw there, I simply was not willing to even make an approach to the Ministry of Finance because my genuinely held belief at the time is I would be laughed out of the room.”

Border plans

Mr. Matthews confirmed that the JTF drafted several versions of the Comprehensive Border Security Plan, the focus of which shifted after the task force decided to pursue the barge option instead of a long-term security plan.

He said it included “well over a million dollars’ worth of proposals.”

The NSC reviewed the initial document and advised the task force to come back with two detailed plans — for the next three months and the next six months — that prioritised spending areas, he added.

Long-term approach

The police commissioner said he favoured the long-term security approach of purchasing land-based security equipment over renting barges because he noticed inadequate water patrol even before the lockdown, and he considered it a better investment given the steep cost of using the vessels.

He said Cabinet made the decision to use the barges, and he conceded that it was up to the body’s discretion. He did, however, express disappointment that Cabinet apparently did not consult him or his colleagues before changing direction.

“I’m no expert on radar, and I certainly don’t disagree the radar is a solution and was an effective way of dealing with areas of our territory where we haven’t got eyes and ears on the ground, but you’ve got to have a response to whatever the radar picks up,” Mr. Matthews said. “And the reality is, throughout most of last year, a vast majority of the marine capability in its territory has been off the water, broken.”

Based on his professional experience, he said, he couldn’t see the justification for the cost of using the barges. He added that reports on EZ Shipping’s radar statistics did not change his view on the barges’ worth. Indeed, he said, they only increased his belief that the territory needs a permanent land-based radar solution instead.

The commission also heard from Sir Geoffrey Cox about government’s difficulties finding and supplying documents for the inquiry.


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