COI Gus Jaspert
In a two-day hearing before the Commission of Inquiry last week, former Governor Gus Jaspert said he called the COI after hearing allegations that included claims that senior officeholders were involved in the drug trade. (Screenshot: COI/YOUTUBE)

Though launching the Commission of Inquiry was one of the most difficult decisions he has made, former Governor Gus Jaspert said during a COI hearing last week that it was necessary due to factors including allegations linking some of the “highest holders of office” to cocaine trafficking and other organised crime in the territory.

He did not provide additional information about the identities of those officeholders, or whether they were elected or appointed. But such allegations heighten the stakes of the inquiry, which is wrapping up its evidence-hearing phase.

During Mr. Jaspert’s testimony over two days last week, he also was asked to respond to several “potential criticisms,” largely drawn from the recent testimony of Premier Andrew Fahie and other elected ministers.

As detailed by COI Counsel Bilal Rawat, they accused him of being combative, undermining ministers, and violating the so-called “modern partnership” between the United Kingdom and the Virgin Islands as
set out in White Papers from 1999 and 2012.

Mr. Jaspert alternately denied these characterisations or claimed not to recall the incidents described, and instead said that the idea of a “modern partnership” was “an important part of my approach in my time as governor.”

Other concerns

Mr. Rawat asked the governor whether the decision to launch the COI in any way also related to projects from the previous National Democratic  Party government, such as the failed $7.2 million BVI Airways deal, irregularities in the Elmore Stoutt High School wall project, and overspending and allegedmismanagement in the cruise pier project.

Although Mr. Jaspert acknowledged that investigations for those projects were under way during his tenure, he said the decision to launch the inquiry was based on “a cumulative set of concerns rather than one specific report.”

These issues, he said, included “the practice of, for example, tender waivers continuing; the practice of, for example, employing consultants
without competition; the practice of actually not complying with the laws of the territory; also some of the practices of appointing people to statutory boards with little transparency or openness in the process.”

Further concerns, he said, related to alleged “intimidation of public officers” and allegations of “decisions being directed outside of processes.” The concerns, he added, had been relayed to him by “credible public officers” and “leaders of some of our institutions, as well as credible members of the public.”

Tensions

The commission further questioned Mr. Jaspert about tensions between him and the premier related to the UK’s offer of a £300 million loan guarantee to finance the recovery from Hurricane Irma.

Such tensions flared frequently in the early months of Mr. Fahie’s administration in 2019 and 2020, as he and Mr. Jaspert quarreled publicly about the role that the UK-backed Recovery and Development Agency should play in the recovery and about the conditions attached to the loan guarantee.

Referencing an excerpt of a position statement from elected ministers, Mr. Rawat repeated grievances aired frequently by Mr. Fahie about the UK offer.

“Did you put the incoming administration under pressure to sign up to the loan agreement and its terms?” Mr. Rawat asked, echoing questions put to current Governor John Rankin during an earlier hearing on Oct. 19.

Mr. Jaspert, like Mr. Rankin, did not agree with that characterisation. “I don’t recall pressuring the premier to sign as he was sworn in,” he said. “That’s not something that I actually recall from my recollection of events.”

He continued by explaining that his guiding principles were “about the Constitution, were about supporting self-determination, about supporting Article 73 throughout.”

Article 73 of the Charter of the United Nations commits the UK to working with territories such as the VI that have not yet attained a full measure of self-governance to achieve the type of system their people feel is best.

Disaster management

Mr. Rawat also asked the former governor about his views on the Disaster Management Act 2021, which was passed in the House of Assembly in January but has not received the governor’s assent. The bill would move oversight of the Department of Disaster Management from the Governor’s Group to the central government.

In their position statement, the elected ministers accused the current governor of undermining them by withholding assent.

But Mr. Jaspert called the move “quite a strange occurrence, because without any consultation, without any engagement, without any discussion with myself, the premier took forward an amendment
that affected an area that I was responsible for.”

Integrity bill

Next, the commission questioned the former governor about elected ministers’ allegations that Mr. Jaspert gave the government no credit for introducing the Integrity in Public  Life Act.

Instead, they said in their position paper that in December 2020 Mr. Jaspert tried in a press briefing to take credit for “bringing forward” the act, even though a Cabinet decision the previous month had approved it.
Mr. Jaspert disagreed with this characterisation, explaining that he had brought a similar paper to Cabinet.

“That was completely normal practice as I, as the attendee of Cabinet who had taken that paper, talked about it,” he said.

The former governor added that the disagreement apparently stemmed from confusion over the premier bringing a separate paper on an “integrity in public life policy,” different from one that Mr. Jaspert said had previously been agreed to in Cabinet.

“I do remember being somewhat surprised at the time that … the premier brought forward this paper that was separate to the decision that had been  agreed at the previous Cabinet and without the wide consultation or partnership approach,” he said. “I could have mitigated any sort of potential for there being two different bills out on the
same subject.”

Chairing Cabinet

The commission then put to Mr. Jaspert the ministers’ complaint that it has become established practice for the deputy governor to chair Cabinet when the governor is absent from the territory, even though the Constitution allows for the premier to do so.

Mr. Jaspert said that then-Attorney General Baba Aziz had supported this arrangement.

Mr. Rawat clarified, “So, for the majority of your tenure as governor, the advice of Baba Aziz on the interpretation of who should sit under the Constitution and who can chair Cabinet, was that it’s either the governor, the acting governor, or the deputy to the governor?”

“Correct,” Mr. Jaspert replied.

On Oct. 19, Mr. Rankin had spoken similarly, stating that he believes the Constitution makes clear that the governor is empowered to appoint the acting governor to act in his place when absent from the territory.

‘Overreach’

Mr. Rawat also quoted a May 2020 letter from Mr. Fahie to Baroness Liz Sugg, who at the time was parliamentary undersecretary of state for the overseas territories.

Mr. Rawat said the letter alleged two examples of “constitutional overreach.”

The first example claims Mr. Jaspert summoned public officers to discuss Covid-19 without prior approval of the Minister of Health and Social Development.

The second example expressed concern about the use of UK military personnel in the VI, and accused the governor of a general undermining of the ministries’ constitutional responsibilities.

However, Mr. Jaspert responded, “To say that security is not the  constitutional responsibility of the governor — that would be the insinuation — it’s a slightly strange position to take. So I have to say I refute the assertions that are in these exchanges.”

‘Full of corruption?’

The commission then turned to evidence concerning comments Mr. Fahie said Mr. Jaspert made at a Cabinet meeting on Jan. 9, 2020.

Mr. Rawat said the premier claimed Mr. Jaspert “uttered statements that the BVI is full of corruption, amongst others. And that was something which the premier in this letter utterly rejects. And he says that he and his colleagues want to express their individual and collective disgust
at your conduct in this instance: that it is unacceptable that you should insult them in this way and cast aspersions on their character.”

‘Disrespectful’

The counsel also said Mr. Fahie claimed Mr. Jaspert’s behaviour showed a pattern that is out of step with the principles of good governance and the socalled “modern partnership” between the VI and UK.

“What’s alleged is effectively your behaviour in that Cabinet meeting and your behaviour towards the current elected members of the government that formed the Cabinet, was disrespectful and insulting,” Mr. Rawat said. “And you tag them all with the tag of corruption.”

Mr. Jaspert replied, “That is incorrect.”

PS appointments

Next, Mr. Rawat asked Mr. Jaspert to explain the reasoning behind his decision not to accept the Public Service Commission’s advice as to certain appointments of permanent secretaries after the election in 2019, which ushered in the current VI Party administration.

“The Honourable [Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister] Vincent Wheatley, when he gave evidence to the commission, said that he didn’t have power to pick his own permanent secretary,” Mr. Rawat said.

Mr. Jaspert didn’t explicitly confirm or deny the allegation, but he responded, “Politicians can feel free to say whatever they wish.”

He added that it was his job to uphold the Constitution and to stand up for the public service, ensuring that it is impartial and independent.

‘Meaningful action’

Mr. Rawat then levelled another criticism from Mr. Fahie: that the former governor failed to take any meaningful action on the failed BVI Airways deal or the ESHS wall, which both fell under the watch of the previous
National Democratic Party government.

“We are yet to see any meaningful action in this jurisdiction, whether through the office of governor or the justice system, towards obtaining justice for the BVI taxpayers,” Mr. Rawat read, quoting Mr. Fahie.

However, Mr. Jaspert insisted that those incidents did not go unaddressed during his tenure.

“Actually, those are the subject of police investigations or before the courts,” he said, and added that both projects were the subject of scathing reports from the auditor general in his time as governor.

Land for $1

Mr. Rawat also brought up a topic previously addressed in an
Oct. 14 hearing, when Mr. Wheatley detailed the May 2020 leasing of a parcel of Crown land later valued at $600,000 to BVI Airports Authority Chairman Bevis Sylvester, the regional managing director of Delta Petroleum, for $1.

Mr. Jaspert signed the landholding licence, but he asserted in a letter that the land previously had been illegally occupied by Delta Petroleum, for which the then-governor signed an expulsion order in 2019.

Although Mr. Wheatley said on Oct. 14 that Cabinet had made the decision to lease the land, he added that he had not been aware of the expulsion order.

Last week, Mr. Jaspert agreed that Cabinet had not been informed.

“And you point out that there was a failure to inform Cabinet that there was an expulsion notice and that the evaluation had not been carried out on any of the properties,” said Mr. Rawat. “Why would you have
signed the license in any event, if
you had concerns?”

Mr. Jaspert said the deal “raised serious questions for me about why land for $600,000 was leased for the price of $1.”

However, he continued, “As governor, sometimes there are things you disagree with; sometimes there are things that you question, trying to seek an improvement to the processes.”

He added that he’d had similar concerns relating to valuations of other Crown land.

Cross-examination

Finally last Thursday, the commissioner addressed a request by Sir Geoffrey Cox, QC,  the attorney representing the attorney general, to cross-examine Governor John Rankin on a date to be determined.

The previous day, Sir Geoffrey had agreed to the commissioner’s request to submit details of his questions to the commission ahead of the examination of Mr. Rankin.

Questions for Jaspert?

He also told the commissioner last Thursday he hadn’t yet made up his mind about whether he would request to also cross-examine Mr. Jaspert.

“I seek time to reflect and I will then make in writing an application” to question the former governor, he said.

Sir Gary explained that he would seek submissions on whether Mr. Jaspert is legally compellable to give evidence about what happened when he was governor, under Section 16 of the Evidence Act.

He then asked Mr. Jaspert about whether he would be willing to be cross-examined by Sir Geoffrey. Mr. Jaspert said Sir Geoffrey would need to submit the details of his questions before he could agree to be examined.


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