Sir Gary Hickinbottom started off closed hearings on May 4 to fulfil his mandate as head of the United Kingdom’s commission of inquiry into corruption in the Virgin Islands.
In an opening statement released to the media the same day, he said he and his team have been working since January to “quietly but with purpose and determination” meet the terms of reference set by former Governor Gus Jaspert.
The commissioner said he aims to move the investigation forward as efficiently as possible to meet his report deadline in July.
“One of the focuses of the initial hearings will be production of information,” he explained. “As I have said, in response to COI requests for voluntary production, in most instances the recipient of the request has provided information and documents, with an indication that he or she has fully complied with the request.”
The initial hearings, he added, will be designed in part to give him “appropriate comfort” that he has all the information and documents relevant to the inquiry.
“In respect of documents which have been produced, various ministers through the attorney general have reserved their positions on whether information and documents they have produced — and are continuing to produce — may be made available to the public,” Sir Gary said.
Therefore, initial hearings will be private, he said, adding that later proceedings might be held in public.
“I have well in mind both the understandable interest that the public has in the COI, and the importance of the principles of transparency and openness,” he noted.
For now, however, people involved in the closed hearings must keep information about them “strictly” confidential unless advised otherwise by the commissioner, he warned.
Recordings other than those authorised by Sir Gary for transcription purposes are not allowed, he said. The transcripts of any public hearings will be posted to the COI website, but otherwise publicising any part of the hearings isn’t permitted, according to the commissioner.
“If there is any such publicity, then I can — and usually will — investigate the cause of the leak and take appropriate action against anyone who has caused or facilitated the breach of confidence,” he said.
He did not detail what sort of punishment he could enforce or seek from another authority.
Sir Gary is due to deliver a full report on his findings to Governor John Rankin in July, but he can request an extension until October. He said on May 4 that he would be considering whether the extension is necessary within the next few weeks.
“To date, many have come forward with information, through the COI website portal or other means, and by face-to-face and remote meetings,” he said. “I am very grateful to all those who have come forward.”
He also noted the efforts of VI government employees to voluntarily fulfil information requests for ministers and other public officials.
“I understand this has involved public servants putting in a considerable amount of work to respond to the requests,” Sir Gary continued. “Whilst some have asked for additional time, none has suggested that he or she has been unable to comply fully with the COI requests as a result of lack of resources.”
The rules for the hearings, which were published on April 13, can be found on the COI’s website at www.bvi.public-inquiry.uk.