As the Covid-19 pandemic continued to batter the Virgin Islands economy in September 2020, Premier Andrew Fahie authorised a system of distributing stimulus grants to religious organisations and schools, he told the Commission of Inquiry recently in response to questions about the programme.
But when COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom asked Tuesday if there was a system in place to ensure this grant money was used correctly, Mr. Fahie didn’t directly answer the question.
“Most of them didn’t apply,” he said, before spending about six minutes explaining the historical role of churches in Virgin Islands society.
Such exchanges were typical of Mr. Fahie’s Tuesday testimony about the Covid-19 stimulus grants.
Throughout the hearing, he countered pointed questions from the COI with lengthy replies that often did not include a direct answer; read from written responses he had previously submitted; and argued repeatedly that the COI is an unfair trial of his government orchestrated by the United Kingdom, a country that he pointed out has many flaws of its own.
In one such tangent that lasted about 18 minutes, Mr. Fahie said his government did its best to respond to the pandemic and claimed that the UK had made several financial missteps in its own effort to boost its economy during the crisis.
This written statement — which wasn’t provided to the COI or to Mr. Fahie’s lawyer Niki Olympitis — prompted Sir Gary to admonish the premier for using the COI as a platform for a political speech about matters outside of the COI’s terms of reference.
“I will continue to focus on governance; I will continue to focus on information which may disclose matters of serious dishonesty in the public office in the [VI], and if I find that information, that … will then appear in my report,” Sir Gary said. “I will not be deflected by political rhetoric. I will not be deflected by inappropriate comparisons to other places.”
Though the COI team members did not read out any of the potential criticisms against the premier in regard to the Covid-19 stimulus, they did ask him specific questions about reports from the auditor general and internal auditor, who both concluded that the programme provided poor value for money as a result of its poor planning and lack of oversight.
One question, for example, referred to a May 25 correspondence in which Mr. Fahie wrote the chairman of the Social Security Board about the SSB-funded stimulus grants and stated that “accountability, transparency, and good governance are of utmost importance,” COI Counsel Bilal Rawat read.
But when Mr. Rawat asked the premier what measures he put in place to ensure these ideals were met, Mr. Fahie launched into a lengthy explanation that he said would provide “context” about the pressure the government faced during the pandemic.
When Mr. Rawat cut in to try and return to the question, Mr. Fahie accused the COI of allowing him only to give evidence “that has already been predetermined,” before again invoking the difficult conditions posed by the pandemic.
Mr. Fahie ultimately did not list any accountability measures, and the COI then started on a line of questioning about the roles played by various task forces and committees in preparing the stimulus policies.
Mr. Fahie’s response
While reading from Mr. Fahie’s written response to a warning letter issued by the COI, Sir Gary said the premier claimed he was involved in the stimulus package only at the policy level, but that “the design or administration of the scheme was left entirely to the public officers.”
When Sir Gary asked Mr. Fahie to confirm the accuracy of this account, the premier read from his response, stating, “The Schemes to which the auditor general refers were developed by public officers in great haste in the face of sudden and unprecedented economic and potential humanitarian emergency, which they were in good faith intending to alleviate.”
Still reading, he added, “The Premier’s Office response sets out why ordinarily applicable value-for-money principles could not be fully applied in such circumstances.”
Mr. Rawat, however, raised questions about the “Premier’s Office response” Mr. Fahie had mentioned.
The document, he said, was not the official one requested by the COI in response to potential criticisms the commission had raised.
Rather, it was an unsigned, undated document submitted to the COI on Sept. 7 that contained a mix of legal and factual submissions, and did not directly address the reports’ allegations, Mr. Rawat said.
When Mr. Rawat asked Mr. Fahie if he had been directly involved in drafting the response in question, Mr. Fahie again did not give a direct answer, and said that he would not answer yes or no questions.
“The office would have prepared it,” he said, adding, “I wasn’t involved in it other than at a higher level. So if they had a question they asked me, but that’s all.”
On Monday, former Financial Secretary Glenroy Forbes appeared before the COI to answer similar questions about the Covid-19 stimulus.
According to Mr. Forbes’ testimony, the steps he took in planning the stimulus package had little bearing on the final package that the premier eventually rolled out.
However, Mr. Forbes also called into question the efficacy of the reports from the internal auditor and the auditor general,alleging that they were provided scant information and didn’t always have clear-cut objectives.
Answering questions fromMr. Rawat, Mr. Forbes described how he chaired the Coronavirus Economic and Stability Task Force, a body set up by Mr. Fahie to develop a policy recommendation for the eventual stimulus package.
Although Mr. Forbes testified that the task force was mandated to produce monthly reports to Cabinet, only one report found its way there, Mr. Rawat said.
Because there was no comprehensive collection of the requisite data, including at the Central Statistics Office, Mr. Forbes said he and his colleagues struggled to gather the information necessary for these reports, and they reverted to conducting interviews and sending out questionnaires.
“It was almost impossible to deliver on the task that was set,” he added.
When Sir Gary then questioned him about the three-pronged agriculture and fisheries relief package eventually designed by the task force, Mr. Forbes said that it differed from the stimulus package the premier later announced.
Referring to the package drafted by the task force, Mr. Forbes said, “This is what we first envisaged when we first put forward our recommendation, … and after the premiere announced his stimulus package, we did a little tweaking here and there, but I don’t think that these policies in here …mirror exactly what was eventually implemented.”
No info for auditor
Mr. Forbes also said that when he was asked for information by the internal auditor and auditor general, he had no information from the Premier’s Office to give them.
He further testified that the effectiveness of the auditors’ reports was limited because they were tasked with “auditing the books,” when they should have been working alongside the agencies implementing the stimulus programme and getting their information directly from them so that they could make recommendations accordingly.
“The whole thing, … with all due respect, has gone pear-shaped, and the reason for that there has been a lot of cross working with the two audit units,” Mr. Forbes said.
Sir Gary, however, put it a different way: “What was actually happening was that nobody was doing any audit, because neither the internal auditor nor the auditor general were given any information.”