Premier Ralph O’Neal declined to answer questions about a letter from the British government during the Feb. 17 House of Assembly sitting because he hadn’t seen the letter at the time, he said on the Virgin Islands Party radio programme “Let’s Talk” on Monday night.

“I could not answer the question because I had not seen or heard of the correspondence,” Mr. O’Neal said, although other government officials asserted that they followed protocol to get the letter delivered to him in November.

On Tuesday, Opposition Leader Dr. Orlando Smith took issue with Mr. O’Neal’s on-air statement. Dr. Smith maintained that the premier’s failure to answer in the HOA was wrong, and said his Monday explanation was “totally unsatisfactory.”

“If he had not received the letter, then he could have said he did not receive it,” Dr. Smith said Tuesday.

In the Feb. 17 HOA sitting, Dr. Smith asked the premier “whether he has received any letter from the British government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office indicating that the Biwater contract with this government represents a contingent liability for this government, and could the minister share the contents of this letter … ?”

Mr. O’Neal declined to answer the question, and Dr. Smith pressed with a follow-up to inquire which part of the question Mr. O’Neal was refusing: the request to share the contents or whether he had received a letter at all.

Again, Mr. O’Neal said he would not answer.

In his statement Monday night, the premier said he was in London when the letter, which is dated Nov. 11, arrived in the territory via diplomatic mail. This week, the Governor’s Office confirmed that it received the letter from Colin Roberts, director of the FCO Overseas Territories Directorate. According to Governor’s Office Staff Officer Emma Dean, the letter was then sent to Rosalie Adams, the permanent secretary in the Premier’s Office.

But on Monday, the premier asked how the letter had reached the public without reaching him.

“How can a letter sent by diplomatic mail to the premier and then dispatched by the governor to the permanent secretary with instructions that she must get the letter to the premier by a certain date end up in the hands of other people?” Mr. O’Neal said, later adding that he “could not get a satisfactory explanation” from his PS.

However, in a Tuesday phone interview, Ms. Adams said she followed proper procedure. According to the PS, she faxed a copy of the letter to the BVI London Office because the premier was in that city, and she handed a copy to Deputy Premier Dancia Penn’s secretary.

Ms. Adams said she has since “been advised” that Ms. Penn, who was acting as premier at the time, said she never got the letter. Attempts yesterday to reach Ms. Penn were unsuccessful.

As of press time, BVI London Office officials had not responded to requests for comment on the FCO letter, but one employee said the office considers all correspondence sent to the premier confidential.

The Beacon also contacted the FCO for comment about the letter. Press officers at that office told this reporter that they were “working on” the request. The Beacon has also submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for documents from the FCO regarding Biwater. 

The full article appears in the March 3, 2011 issue.