Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley hosted a press conference on Friday. (Photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

Three days after Governor John Rankin released his first quarterly review on the implementation of the Commission of Inquiry recommendations, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said the document included criticisms based on misunderstandings that should have been clarified before the publication of the report.

He made the claim during a press conference on Friday, and a similar sentiment was also shared by his brother Benito Wheatley — who serves as the special envoy of the premier — at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly last Thursday.

In a Friday statement styled as his own quarterly review of the COI reforms, the premier agreed with the governor’s findings that the overall progress is largely on track. By the end of August, he claimed, “94 percent” of the COI recommendations were “completed or were in progress to be completed.”

He made this claim during a press conference on Friday, and a similar sentiment was also shared by his brother Benito Wheatley — who serves as the special envoy of the premier — at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly last Thursday.

In a Friday statement styled as his own quarterly review of the COI reforms, the premier agreed with the governor’s findings that the overall progress is largely on track. By the end of August, he claimed, “94 percent” of the COI recommendations were “completed or were in progress to be completed.”

However, Dr. Wheatley pushed back against various criticisms included in the governor’s review, insisting that he and his government have been doing all they can to meet their commitments under the reform framework agreed with the United Kingdom in June.

“We were very ambitious in our commitments and, unfortunately, deadlines have been missed,” Dr. Wheatley said. “It is important to note that deadlines have been missed on the governor’s side as well as on the side of Cabinet. In all instances, these deadlines have been missed for good reason. For instance, we have insisted that the Jury Act and the Register of Interests Act, both which fall under the Governor’s Group’s responsibilities, receive proper consultation as opposed to being rushed through the legislative process.”

The premier acknowledged that in the “modern partnership” between the Virgin Islands and the UK, there would be “disagreements and misunderstandings.”

“It is important that we deal with them maturely and in such a way that strengthens the partnership rather than eroding it,” he said.

Premier’s Office Permanent Secretary Carolyn Stoutt-Igwe, who also weighed in on the topic at the press conference, stated that some of the reform measures that have not yet launched are dependent on the completion of reviews.

“There are a number of legislations that have to come into effect next year,”she said.“Those would be things that have not yet been started. For the most part, most activities have been started or are in the process of being started.”

The governor did not join the premier on Friday as he has at previous press conferences about the COI reforms, but he has promised to meet with the press after the UK responds to his quarterly review.

Tender waivers

On Friday, Dr. Wheatley took particular issue with Mr. Rankin’s criticisms of tender waivers, Cabinet papers, and the proposed Register of Interests Act passed recently by the House of Assembly.

In his review, the governor alleged that the Cabinet has not consistently followed its framework commitment to ensure that “tender waivers are only agreed in exceptional, unavoidable cases, and which must be explained publicly.”

Instead, the waivers were still being presented to Cabinet “often with insufficient and poorly-presented justification,” Mr. Rankin claimed.

“Some of these proposals date from contractual commitments made by the previous administration,” the review noted. “But even in these cases, the [National Unity Government] has in many cases failed to take action to launch tender processes before the expiry of the current contract, and has proposed waivers for contract extensions without evidence of value for money.”

He added that Cabinet has also fallen short in its commitment to publicly explain tender waivers.

“Although I have repeatedly reminded Cabinet of the requirement under the framework document to publish documents related to tender waiver proposals, none have to date been published,” he wrote. “This is regrettable, and a failure to provide the transparency and public accountability that publication of the documents would support.”

Dr. Wheatley, however, said he believes the governor was mistaken on these points, noting that a new procurement law passed recently was in development “way before the COI.”

“We now have in place the Public Procurement Act, which gives clear guidelines on how procurement is to be done, and this has removed the open discretion which previously existed,” the premier said. “Procurement can be done through open tendering, restricted tendering or single-source procurement for the most part…. Single-source procurement is not the equivalent of a tender waiver; it clearly defines the instances where it is not necessary to go through an open tender. For example, contracts for emergencies or national security matters do not have to go through open tendering.”

He added that if single-source procurement is done according to the Public Procurement Act, it “shouldn’t be presented as something wrong with that” or as the “same old practice as before.”

“I believe that tender waivers were being conflated with single-source procurement,” he said.“I think it’s important to have a sit-down and an understanding, especially with the Ministry of Finance, so that we can get a clear understanding of the procurement process now.”

Cabinet papers

Dr. Wheatley also took issue with the governor’s claim about Cabinet Papers.

Mr. Rankin’s review alleged that Cabinet members had frequently breached their framework committment to circulate early drafts of reform-related Cabinet papers in order to enable advance discussions.

“Instead, too often Cabinet papers are still being submitted very late, sometimes without the full relevant information,” the review stated. “This is not consistent with the good governance which the reform programme is intended to achieve.”

The premier, however, disputed this account. He noted that all Cabinet papers are jointly agreed by the governor and himself, and that the deadline to submit papers 48 hours in advance of a meeting has been “consistently met.”

“If we consider a paper with less notice than this, it is only with the agreement of the governor and premier,” Dr. Wheatley added.

Register of Interests

In his review, the governor also criticised the government’s handling of its commitment to make the Register of Interests public — a measure that was required by June 30 under the reform framework.

A version of the Register of Interests Act, 2022 introduced in the HOA in July would have published the register as promised. However, before passing the bill, HOA members went into a closed-door committee session and made changes that the governor said “severely restrict public access” to the register by requiring written applications and fees.

“They would only be allowed to view the register in the presence of the registrar and would not be permitted to take any kind of copy or even notes of the contents. In my view, these amendments are contrary to the principle of transparency,” Mr. Rankin wrote, adding that the move is also contrary to the framework’s intent to make the register public.

The premier, however, defended the amendments restricting access to the register, noting that the final version of the bill — which hasn’t been made public because it awaits the governor’s assent — is similar to an act in place in the Cayman Islands.

“If the people themselves want us to go further, I think that we have the responsibility to go further,” he added. “I don’t think it restricts the access at all.”

Accordingly, Dr. Wheatley said, he disagrees with the governor’s view on the register.

“We are open to hearing what the public has to say and can organise a special public consultation to get a gauge on public opinion,” he said. “The greatest concern on the Register of Interests is not the fact that the House of Assembly made a minor amendment, but the undemocratic way in which the legislation, which falls under the Governor’s Group, was being imposed on public officers without proper consultation.”

He added that public officers should also have “rights to privacy” and control over who has access to “personal information.”

However, the bill passed by the HOA doesn’t include public officers. A previous bill that would have included senior public officers was tabled on June 30, the deadline for passing the act. But it was withdrawn on July 14 following protests from the Virgin Islands Civil Service Association and others. The new bill, which was expedited through the HOA in one sitting on July 21, only applies to HOA members.

Threat of direct rule

During the press conference, Dr. Wheatley was asked about the chances of the UK suspending parts of the Constitution and implementing direct rule — an outcome the UK has threatened if the reform process stalls. The premier explained that his government hadn’t yet received a response from the UK regarding the governor’s review.

However, given the reform progress so far, he said he doesn’t believe that any of the recent delays will lead to a Constitutional suspension. Still, he said, everyone “should be worried” about the possibility of the Constitution being suspended at some point.

“The concept has not been completely abandoned,” he said. “We cannot be implementing reforms based on coercion or force. That’s something I reject completely.”

He added that he doesn’t agree with the UK or “any other government” suspending “another group’s constitution.”

“It’s fundamentally undemocratic. You can’t impose democracy on someone,” he said. “We still have to deal with our own affairs. When you suspend the Constitution, at some point you’ll have to implement a constitution and deal with the people. The people will still have the right to elect a government, and this government will have to make laws and amend laws.”

He also encouraged open dialogue on the topic between the people, the government, the governor, and the UK.

“When I go through this reform process, I’m being true to this process,” he added. “I want to dialogue with the people of the Virgin Islands. Going through reform is not a problem. It’s not a challenge.”

The governor had not responded to Dr. Wheatley’s com- ments as of press time yesterday afternoon.