Focusing on elected officials’ financial interests and how they go about allocating $1.8 million each year in assistance grants, the Commission of Inquiry resumed public hearings again this week.
COI Counsel Bilal Rawat led the questioning of Attorney General Dawn Smith and Junior Ministers Sharie de Castro and Shereen Flax-Charles on June 14. Then on June 15 the inquiry called Sixth District Representative Alvera Maduro-Caines, Deputy Speaker Neville Smith, and Ministers Kye Rymer and Vincent Wheatley. Opposition member Julian Fraser testified on June 16, as did other HOA members.
While questioning the legislators, Mr. Rawat asked detailed questions about why most were late in meeting their legal obligation to submit annual declarations to the registrar of interests, with the worst breach coming more than two years late in spite of repeated reminders from the registrar.
He also sought their views on reforming systems like campaign financing and the assistance grants that elected representatives allocate at their own discretion.
Register of Interests
One of the first steps Mr. Rawat took with each of the witnesses was reviewing their submissions to the Register of Interests.
The register, which is not open to the public, contains information about elected officials’ business dealings with the aim of preventing them from making decisions as HOA members that might represent a conflict of interest.
The attorney general said during her hearing on June 14 that government is working on an amendment that would make the register publicly accessible, though she said it hasn’t reached Cabinet yet.
Every official questioned on June 14 and June 15 said they would support the move in the interest of transparency and accountability.
With the exception of Mr. Smith, who was consistently on time, every member also confirmed that they had submitted their declaration of interests to the registry late at least once since taking office, which Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom described as a serious breach of the Register of Interests Act 2006.
The declaration forms cover 10 main categories: paid directorships; paid employment; client services; sponsorships before an election and after becoming a member; gifts worth more than $500 or 1.5 percent of their salary; overseas travel; gifts received while abroad; land other than one’s home; shareholdings; and a miscellaneous category for any other disclosures members think may be in the public’s interest to include.
The commission went over all the witnesses’ declarations, noting multiple areas where members said they experienced some confusion when filling them out.
Members said they had trouble deciding when items — such as business ownership and stockholding for the same company — should be disclosed in multiple categories. They also described confusion over differences in declarations as company owners versus “doing-business-as” trade licence holders; deciding whether or not to declare their personal residences as land; listing government-funded travel; and what exactly should be included in the “miscellaneous” category. Timeliness for submitting the forms was also an issue, they said.
Ms. de Castro, junior minister for tourism and territorial atlarge representative, confirmed that she submitted her first declaration after the 2019 general election on July 10, although Sir Gary pointed out that it should have been sent no later that the day of her swearing-in on March 12.
The Register of Interests Act also stipulates that this report must be submitted every year in office, and that if a member doesn’t submit the form within three months of the deadline, a report should be made to the overseeing select committee of the HOA within 14 days of the breach. The committee is then supposed to meet within 21 days of receiving the report. The law does not make provisions for members to be excused.
Ms. de Castro said the failing in her first year was mostly due to a lack of instruction as a young politician.
“As a newly elected member of the government, it was a steep learning curve, and without formal orientation to the position,” she said. “Through the notifications from the registrar reminding me, I subsequently did take due consideration to visit her office to be fully briefed as to what is expected of me, and on that date I did fill out my declaration and submitted it.”
Other witnesses echoed her sentiments about the lack of initial instruction. She also said her paperwork was ready to be submitted on time this year but a delay came because the registrar was hospitalised.
Her main disclosure focused on her remunerated position as the sole owner and employee of the Write to Read Afterschool Literacy Company.
Four months late
Ms. Flax-Charles, junior minister for trade and economic development and territorial atlarge representative, submitted her declaration late by four months in 2019 and by a month in 2020, according to the commission.
Her 2021 form was signed and dated March 21 (within the deadline) but she said the date wasn’t in her handwriting, explaining that she assumed office staff filled it in for her.
She also noted that certain dbas, like her music studio and boutiques, appeared on only some annual forms and not on others because the businesses were not operational at times due to hurricane damage.
Ms. Maduro-Caines went through her declarations since 2015, all of which were filed late by at least a few days. She shared that she was uncertain about needing to disclose a property in her husband’s name that was up for sale, among other questions.
The COI took particular interest in her husband’s business, E&A Catering, for which she was a signatory.
She said her husband is the sole owner, and the dba operates with a trade licence but isn’t considered a company. She said she doesn’t get paid, and though E&A Catering had served government functions, it did not hold a contract.
Mr. Smith submitted all three of his declarations before the deadlines, but he shared some doubts about whether his companies and dbas should be listed under the directorship or remunerated position categories.
He also previously did not disclose certain landholdings because he believed only those being rented to and from government were required, which he amended in his 2021 declaration, he said.
Mr. Rymer, the minister of transportation, works and utilities and District Five representative, said his initial declaration in 2019 was overdue by about six months.
He stated that he initially thought that by declaring his interests in a newspaper when running for office, he had fulfilled his obligation.
He added that he also “didn’t make it a priority” in his early days in office.
“I understand that having just been elected and appointed a minister, you had a lot of things to do,” Sir Gary said. “But this is a statutory requirement of an act of the House of Assembly. It’s mandatory. There are no defences. Shouldn’t that circumstance have made this quite a high priority?”
The minister agreed and admitted to the error amid his other obligations.
His declaration that should have been filed on March 12, 2020 also came late: It wasn’t submitted until Jan. 27, 2021 — a delay he blamed on his other time commitments.
Mr. Rawat said the COI wasn’t able to obtain a copy of the 2021 declaration from the registrar, but Mr. Rymer said it had been filed on time and was not different from the previous year, and he promised to provide a copy.
Looking at the available declarations, Mr. Rawat asked if Mr. Rymer had provided adequate detail about his involvement with Rent-A-Car BVI and Courtesy Bike Rental. Mr. Rymer said probably not, but even though the trade licence is active the business is not active and his scooters are not on the roads.
Mr. Wheatley, minister of natural resources, labour and immigration and District Nine representative, said his 2019 declaration was eight months late, and the COI read letters from the registrar that indicated she had contacted him multiple times with no response.
His 2020 declaration was more than a year late, and the COI said it was not able to get a copy from the registrar. His 2021 form, however, was only a few days late.
Asked about the filing form, he described it as ambiguous, especially when differentiating between companies and dbas in disclosing his shareholdings.
He admitted to mistakenly listing overseas travel that was funded by either public funds or personally, noting that it would only have to be disclosed if another entity covered the costs.
He agreed with Mr. Rymer that it may be beneficial to the public if the register required greater detail about members’ role with their companies.
He and other witnesses generally agreed with the commission’s suggestion that the form may need to be edited for clarity’s sake.
Fraser’s years outdated
Mr. Fraser, the District Three representative and opposition member, appeared the morning of June 16. He was the first HOA member to testify who was serving when the Register of Interests Act was passed by the HOA.
The committee pointed out that Mr. Fraser was significantly overdue on declarations meant to be filed by Dec. 8, 2014, June 23, 2015 and June 23, 2016. Those declarations were all stamped by the registrar on April 12, 2017, COI members stated, noting that Mr. Fraser had dated his signature on the forms to when they were originally due, not the actual date he gave them to the registrar.
The commission noted similar issues with subsequent declarations.
Mr. Fraser’s communications with the registrar indicated that he sent his declarations that were originally due in 2017, 2018 and 2019 late, all stamped on Feb. 23, 2020, according to the COI.
The opposition member said he took responsibility for the failures to submit on time despite what Sir Gary classified as polite but persistent reminders from the registrar, even though she is not required to do so under the act.
Mr. Fraser, however, refuted other HOA members’ claims that the forms are confusing or unclear. He said public perception may be that the HOA is a “group of rogues” left to their own devices to fill out the forms, but the registrar does have the power to cancel any submissions she considers fraudulent and require a member to resubmit the form.
However, Sir Gary noted multiple system failures brought to light by other members’ testimonies.
“Members of the House of Assembly put in declarations late — or, with respect to you, very late in some cases,” he said. “Secondly, under Section Seven, and this is not a criticism of the registrar, but it’s a fact, … the registrar has to report a member who is over three months late to the standing committee. That is not done. … Thirdly, the standing committee which oversees this, which on your evidence didn’t exist until 2017, on the evidence we’ve had today has never met with the sole exception to which you’ve referred. … At the moment, that doesn’t seem to me to be an effective government system.”
The standing select committee in question is composed of chair Premier Andrew Fahie, Mr. Smith, Mr. Rymer, Ms. Flax-Charles, and Mr. Penn. Ms. Flax-Charles said the committee had never sat since she was appointed around September 2019, and she had no knowledge of receiving any reports concerning the delinquent declarations.
Mr. Smith said the same, and when pressed by Mr. Rawat agreed that the committee should in the future work with the registrar to confirm that all the forms were filled out correctly and on time.
The COI team asked all the members whether the system of checks and the declaration form itself might need revision to offer greater clarity for people filling them out. Besides Mr. Fraser, witnesses agreed that the document could use some reform.
The COI also asked the witnesses how they approached a section of the declaration that asks about sponsorships, including those given on the campaign trail.
None of the witnesses said they received donations exceeding $2,500 from an individual prior to the 2019 general election, claiming they paid their district campaign expenses mostly out of pocket.
Mr. Rymer also said he wasn’t aware of any maximum amount that could be spent on a campaign.
“Anybody wants to win, they’ll spend whatever money they have in terms of whatever they need to get a jump,” he explained.
Campaign finance reform
Mr. Rawat asked some members if they would support implementing new policies for campaign and party financing, including requiring political parties to register and report their finances while limiting their spending maximum.
Ms. Flax-Charles, Ms. Maduro-Caines, Mr. Smith, Mr. Rymer and Mr. Wheatley said they believe such measures would improve public confidence.
Mr. Wheatley did make one objection, noting that countries like the United States have campaign finance laws but they still see massive amounts of money being poured into elections. Sir Gary, however, noted that at least members of the public are aware that such donations are made because of the laws.
Mr. Wheatley noted that he would still support any measures to increase transparency.
The other main subject tackled early this week was assistance grants.
Members have a set amount of money, typically $125,000 a year for district representatives and $150,000 for territorial representatives, that they can use to render financial aid to community members.
They can use the funds at their discretion, but must get approval from the Treasury.
As witnesses noted, this money can be used for anything from supporting district projects like beach cleanups or school competitions to covering life-saving medical procedures for those in need.
Ms. de Castro noted the difficulty of choosing which applications to support considering demand far outstrips the available funds. And Ms. Flax-Charles pointed out that the VI does not have a welfare system like in the US.
The commission also inquired about the system for allocating grants.
Ms. de Castro and other members explained that an individual applies to a minister; the member vets and potentially recommends the application to the House clerk, who also reviews it and either returns it to the member (if for example, another minister had already funded the grant) or forwards it to the Treasury; the Treasury conducts similar due diligence and either returns it or cuts the cheque for members to distribute.
Witnesses noted that there is no apparent maximum for how much they can allocate to an individual, though amounts exceeding $10,000 may need approval from the Ministry of Finance. Beyond not being able to give grants to immediate family, the decision is largely on the shoulders of the members, said Mr. Wheatley and others.
Sir Gary asked multiple members if there are any checks and balances for ensuring the $1.8 million is well spent and not leveraged for vote buying. Ms. de Castro and the others said the aforementioned process is the main safeguard.
Mr. Rawat also asked Mr. Rymer and Mr. Wheatley about times they recused themselves from Cabinet matters.
He cited Cabinet minutes that showed Mr. Wheatley stepping out of debate for approving his sister Arleen Parsons to the BVI Tourist Board.
Mr. Rymer, he added, stepped out when his mother-in-law Patsy Lake was appointed to the Social Security Board, when his aunt Violet de Castro was appointed to the Festivals and Fairs Committee, and when government was considering a contract for office space owned by Ms. Lake. Mr. Rymer said such recusals are not typically included in the publicly Gazetted Cabinet summary.
Sir Gary asked Mr. Wheatley how one draws the line for recusing oneself given the close ties within the VI, and the minister said he considers whether the person is a distant relative (a second cousin or further); if they spend a lot of time together; how the public views the relationship and other factors.
But he agreed that even though Cabinet rules are fairly clear, publicising instances when members recuse themselves could increase public confidence in leaders.
Mr. Smith said one time he received an exemption from giving up his seat in the House while one of his businesses, Frontline Systems, carried out a government-related tendered contract for rendering services for August Emancipation Festival celebrations.
However, he did note that he wasn’t strictly required to seek an exemption considering the Festivals and Fairs Committee is a statutory body, but did so out of an abundance of transparency.
He also said the company had been operating for some time both here and internationally before he got into politics.
He added that he couldn’t speak for other members, but he believed officials should make such declarations and would support policy for it.
Mr. Wheatley later added that he believes conducting such business should not require a member step down, arguing that they should still be allowed to make a living.
After Mr. Fraser, the hearings continued on June 16 with a schedule that included opposition member Mitch Turnbull, former District Nine Representative Dr. Hubert O’Neal, former Speaker of the House Ingrid Moses-Scatliffe, former Education and Culture Minister Myron Walwyn, and Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley.
On June 17, hearings were set to continue with Opposition Leader Marlon Penn as well as former Premier Dr. Orlando Smith, former Deputy Premier Dr. Kedrick Pickering, former Deputy Premier Ronnie Skelton, and former at-large representative Archibald Christian.
Hearings are to continue on June 18 with Speaker of the House Julian Willock, Mr. Fahie, and opposition member Mark Vanterpool, and on June 21 with Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone.