At 937 pages, the document is much more thorough and far-reaching than the TCI’s 2009 COI report, which was about one-fifth that length, she told the Beacon.
“This systemic corruption, it’s always in your mind, and what’s unreported is way worse than what’s reported,” said Ms. Cartwright-Robinson, an attorney who served as TCI premier from 2016 to 2021. “We only got to the tip of the iceberg of course, and during the [TCI’s COI] even members of the government were stunned at some of the things revealed. That’s why for me it’s still interesting how there was no further investigations [in TCI] to correct what is known as systemic corruption.”
Despite some differences in the TCI and VI reports, there are also many similarities, and the TCI’s recent history may hint at this territory’s future.
Dr. Peter Clegg, who studies the overseas territories at the University of the West of England in Bristol, said there are striking parallels between the TCI and VI findings.
These, he said, include “alleged dishonesty of public officials, the failure of [HOA members] to register interests, corruption in the distribution of grants, lax controls on public spending, an absence of auditing and more general checks and balances including by the House of Assembly, the improper disposal of Crown land, arbitrary decisions in relation to residency, weaknesses in the criminal justice system, and the fear of reprisals for speaking out.”
Additionally, he said, the language used by both inquiries is quite similar, with phrases such as “serious dishonesty” and references to a high likelihood of systemic corruption.
But there are also notable differences in the reports. Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom’s 45 recommendations for the VI, which touch on almost all areas of governance in the territory, include full investigations of public agencies such as Her Majesty’s Customs, as well as a review of the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force and vetting of all law enforcement officers.
“The references to customs and the police and all of that; we never had that,” Ms. Cartwright-Robinson said.
Leaders under fire
She also noted similarities in the circumstances surrounding both inquiries. To begin with, both territories had leaders already under fire by the time the reports were released.
In the VI’s case, it was then-Premier Andrew Fahie’s April 28 arrest in Miami that first sent the territory into a tailspin.
The next day, his arrest prompted the early release of the report, which Governor John Rankin had previously pledged to keep private until June. Mr. Fahie was quickly replaced after a vote of no-confidence last Thursday in the House of Assembly.
In the TCI, former Premier Michael Misick had been at the centre of controversy for some time before the COI due to the jet-setting lifestyle he led amid an economic downturn in the territory, as well an allegation of rape by a United States woman that was later dismissed.
He resigned his premiership in March 2009 after a preliminary report from the COI earlier that month pointed to a “high probability of systemic corruption or other serious dishonesty” among officials. In hopes of staving off direct rule by the United Kingdom, he also filed an application for judicial review of a UK order in council enabling the partial suspension of the TCI constitution that August.
Meanwhile, Mr. Misick was succeeded by his former minister of home affairs and national security, Galmo Williams, who as premier formed a new government but didn’t implement a cross-party coalition like the one formed last week in the VI by Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley.
After Mr. Williams took office, Ms. Cartwright-Robinson said, “There was that period where people in Turks and Caicos believed, ‘Okay, there’s a fresh breath of air; there’s a new premier; then new ministers. Then the hammer came down August 15.”
The TCI commission’s final report — which was delivered to then-Governor Gordon Wetherell in July 2009 and leaked shortly thereafter — found “information in abundance pointing to a high probability of systemic corruption and/or serious dishonesty” in the TCI.
By that time, Ms. Cartwright-Robinson said, “I believe persons knew that there had to be some sort of intervention. But both political parties for sure did not support the suspension of the constitution.”
Their hopes were in vain: Mr. Misick’s application for judicial review was tossed out on Aug. 13, 2009, and the UK formally instituted direct rule the next day. Mr. Misick allegedly fled the TCI the same year, initially to the Dominican Republic, according to reports at the time.
TCIslanders who spoke to the Beacon recalled no rallies or marches protesting direct rule in the TCI at the time. But a volatile period followed.
During this time, Ms. Cartwright-Robinson was a lawyer in private practice and working as a law tutor at TCI Community College. With the dawn of direct UK rule, she was named to the “consultative forum” appointed by the governor and recommended by the COI to advise him alongside a smaller, separate advisory council.
She said the forum was often contentious, with many TCIslanders passing judgment on its members for cooperating with the UK.
During UK direct rule, even those who joined the board felt that the governor was ducking blame for his own role in facilitating dishonesty in government, she said.
Under the TCI constitution, she added, the governor is largely responsible for good governance and the public service.
“The governor sits in Cabinet,” she said. “He could have done all of these different things. At one point we were saying the governor should have been arrested because he actually went through a lot of what was done. That was the climate, really; there was no connection between local people who served on advisory boards appointed by the governor, and then [there was] this attitude that this is a place of crooked people.”
Dr. Clegg said reading the VI report made him think that similar contention may arise here. He added that he was surprised that “the British government did not act sooner to avoid another TCI-like scenario.”
Although the VI governor and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office came out of the VI report “relatively unscathed,” Dr. Clegg noted, “questions should be asked about why the UK did not act sooner to address pretty fundamental concerns about governance in the BVI, and whether the model for overseeing the overseas territories, and particularly those in the Caribbean, should be reviewed.”
The mere fact that a similar breakdown in governance happened in TCI 15 years ago suggests that “the political and administrative arrangements between the territories and the FCDO and within Whitehall should be reconsidered,” he added.
Damian Wilson, deputy director of Radio Turks and Caicos, said that the criticism of the UK at the time often included misinformation.
“During the time of the suspension of our constitution, there were a lot of these types of articles floating around: Many were written either by agents of the former premier — or Misick himself on occasion,” he said.
These articles sometimes repeated false claims that the British were planning for a permanent takeover, confiscating land legally belonging to TCIslanders, or replacing all public officers with British civil servants, he said.
Such claims — some of which were echoed by VI activists opposing direct rule at a community meeting last week — were often inaccurate exaggerations of the truth.
Some land, for instance, was seized as part of assets relating to criminal investigations, Mr. Wilson explained.
“There were a few public servants named in the COI report who were removed from their posts, and some put on trial, but this was not a vast number of persons,” he added.
Both he and Ms. Cartwright-Robinson said that the size of the public service was downsized due to spending cuts, though Mr. Wilson said officers received “generous compensation packages” in exchange for retiring early.
The UK ruled TCI directly until June 2012, all while implementing reforms it said were designed to improve governance and drafting a new constitution, which was approved by the governor in 2011 and took effect in 2012.
The revised constitution changed how Crown land was given or sold to TCI belongers, and it also included a variety of other new provisions and gave the governor more power to overrule ministerial decisions that he felt violated the principles of good governance.
The new constitution also required the HOA to meet more often, and strengthened its committee structure, Mr. Wilson said.
Additionally, it gave greater protections and powers to government watchdogs like the auditor general and the director of public prosecutions.
The public service was reformed as well, with measures that reduced the number of ministries and implemented a new system for appointing permanent secretaries that included performance indicators and term limits. An Integrity Commission, established in 2009 during the leadup to the release of the report, was also strengthened.
Voting rights remained unchanged, Mr. Wilson said, explaining that TCIslanders strongly opposed expanding the franchise. Currently, TCI residents are eligible to apply for belongership after 10 years of living in the territory
Mr. Misick, meanwhile, was arrested in 2012 by police in Brazil and later extradited back to the territory. Some of his assets, including land holdings and bank accounts, were frozen in June 2012 as part of the corruption investigations.
However, the proceedings have faced delays including Covid-19 and the death in 2021 of the judge presiding over his trial. He has denied wrongdoing, and the trial is still ongoing.
The ultimate legacy of the in TCI COI and direct rule has been mixed, sources said. There is still debate in the territory about whether positive reforms could have been accomplished through less draconian means.
“When the COI report was released in the TCI in 2009, I believe that a sizeable majority of the TCI populace was against the proposal of direct rule,” Mr. Wilson said. “This included those who supported the COI and the removal of officials accused of corruption, but not direct rule. However, I do believe that there was a small segment of the population that initially thought that having the UK impose direct rule was a good idea, as local officials could not be trusted to be honest and competent. However, even many of them came to regret that position in time.”
‘Some really good things’
Ms. Cartwright-Robertson said the reform process resulted in important changes.
“I would not knock the reforms, because there were some really good things that had to be put in place: clear guidelines,” she said. “My contention remains that quite a bit of that could have been done [without direct UK rule].”
She added that the post-COI period of adjustment has been difficult for some people who were used to the old ways, such as contractors, who had to adapt to new, more complicated bidding rules designed to encourage transparency.
Some new transparency requirements have also impeded efficiency, she said, with public officers less inclined to act quickly for fear of running afoul of the new rules.
“One of the more popular reforms is the whole process of bidding for government contracts,” she said. “Contractors do not approve. Neither do I. It’s a lot for people. It is too complicated. It really then tilts the scales towards the larger contract.”
She added, “This killing-a-fly-with-the-sledgehammer approach never sits well with me.”
No permanent takeover
Mr. Wilson pointed out that despite claims in 2009 that the British sought to take over permanently, the TCI has been back under elected government for about 10 years.
Today, he said, it has a widely trusted leader at the helm.
The current premier, Charles Washington “Washy” Misick, is Michael Misick’s brother, but he “is trusted by many across the islands on both sides of the political spectrum,” Ms. Wilson explained.
“That being said, some of the new laws and mechanisms of oversight are often viewed by local politicians and their supporters as a way for the British to have more say,” Mr. Wilson added.
“For example, the requirement for the TCI to submit a fiscal plan to the UK for approval before our budget can be debated. However, the current administration says that they have been making strides in possibly getting this requirement stopped.”
The UK and the VI
As for the VI, Dr. Clegg believes that increased UK involvement is inevitable and that partial suspension of the Constitution and direct rule from London “will likely happen.”
“If it does happen, the process of reform will take some time, possibly around the full two years,” he said. “It will not be easy due to the complexity of what is required, with some resistance from local politicians, and Caricom will accuse the British government of acting as a colonial power. There may well be parallel criminal investigations, with any trials being judge-only as the COI report recommends.”
Either way, he said, “Trust between BVI politicians and the public, and between the BVI and UK, will have to be rebuilt, and this will take time.”