When tabling an auditor general report that alleges consultant Claude Skelton-Cline did little to deliver contracted work for the government despite receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars over two and a half years, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley shared his regret that he and others signed off on the deals in the first place.
“I’m here to say to you that I believe my support for these contracts was a mistake,” he told the House of Assembly on Feb. 21. “And I believe the former premier made a mistake in engaging Claude Skelton-Cline with these contracts.”
The Dec. 30 report — which was carried out pursuant to a recommendation from the Commission of Inquiry — examined Mr. Skelton-Cline’s contracts from March 25, 2019 to Sept. 17, 2021.
Though Mr. Skelton-Cline ultimately received $365,650, Auditor General Sonia Webster concluded that her initial investigation suggested “the primary purpose of this consultancy was not to add value to the government but rather provide employment for the consultant.”
“The records do not show any demonstrated effort by the consultant to actually satisfy the deliverables stipulated in the contracts,” her report states. “The audit confirmation exercises performed indicate that much of the work reported or claimed by the consultant was undertaken by persons and programmes independent of the consultancy. In a number of cases, his association with the programmes was either fleeting or non-existent.”
The report also claims that Mr. Skelton-Cline’s periodic reports were “largely duplicated without any advancement or effort to achieve progress.”
It adds, “As a result, very little was gained from this arrangement, and the government failed to receive value for money on these contracts.”
The 33-page document notes that Mr. Skelton-Cline received three consecutive government contracts starting a month after then-Premier Andrew Fahie’s new Virgin Islands Party government was sworn in on Feb. 26, 2019.
But it adds that his previous contracts with government go back more than a decade.
“Claude Skelton-Cline is a familiar persona in the political landscape in the Virgin Islands and is known to alternate his affiliation with the two major political parties in the BVI,” the report states. “He was first engaged by the government in October 2008 by instruction of the then Minister of Education Andrew Fahie (VIP), under a contractual arrangement to spearhead a youth development programme which was not completed.”
The latest report details the auditor general’s independent investigation into the three most recent contracts, and whether Mr. Skelton-Cline fulfilled his contractual obligations and whether the government got value for its money.
Similar questions were also probed during the COI hearings.
When Mr. Fahie was called to testify in May 2021, he stood by the contracts, saying he told Mr. Skelton-Cline that he would have to send a formal proposal to the Premier’s Office explaining what services he could offer.
“I was very careful with that because Mr. Skelton-Cline was known to be around all political parties during the campaign, so I asked him to present your documents and your details of what all you can offer to the Premier’s Office for consideration,” he said, later classifying the consultant as his political “supporter.”
He added that the Ministry of Finance was looking for a “catalyst” to spark major investments when later considering Mr. Skelton-Cline’s proposal.
The inquiry team also called Mr. Skelton-Cline in October 2021, but he refused to answer many of their questions, claiming the probe was unfairly focusing on him and out of the scope of its remit.
During the questions, he repeatedly argued with COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom and COI Counsel Bilal Rawat, refusing to look at documents they put before him and painting himself as a victim.
The COI team subsequently recommended in its final report that the auditor general or other independent body perform a full audit of Mr. Skelton-Cline’s contracts “as soon as practical.” This audit, they recommended, should include a review of the work he did under contract, his obligations, “the extent that he was not performing his contractual obligations,” and whether the contracts provided value for money.
The report duly explores these issues and notes areas where contracted work was not completed.
The auditor general, for instance, identified several instances where objectives were “not advanced,” including some of Mr. Skelton-Cline’s contracted work in telecommunications, youth empowerment, and small business development. In other instances, like his work on employment in cruise ships, she labelled the project as “progressed but incomplete.”
The report claimed that in the two and a half years during which Mr. Skelton-Cline was contracted, he didn’t complete any assignments that were discussed but not specifically laid out in the contract, except for a few Covid-19-related initiatives.
“The assignment of these ad hoc projects had the effect of an unfocused and casual arrangement not representative of the monetary investment the government had placed in the consultancy,” the report states.
The Premier’s Office also failed to properly regulate the no-bid contracts, costing the government substantially, the report states.
The auditor general’s office also noted that several entities did not respond to its inquiries, including My Justice Law, Miller Thomson and TerrAscend on matters relating to medicinal marijuana; LIFELabs.io on fintech; and Caribbean Telecommunications Union on matters relating to telecommunications.
When laying the report on Feb. 21, Dr. Wheatley shared his regret that the contracts moved forward.
Health and Social Development Minister Marlon Penn agreed that the situation was a “cautionary tale” in cronyism and abuse of public funds that must stop.
“There needs to be a new direction moving forward in terms of how we handle the affairs of the people of this territory,” Mr. Penn said. “All of us that were culpable in these types of actions need to be held accountable.”
On his talk show Honestly Speaking, Mr. Skelton-Cline claimed he did a “phenomenal job” with his contract work and said he felt no need to defend his actions. Attempts to reach him were not successful.
The Feb. 21 HOA
The HOA discussion on the report came after HOA members agreed on Feb. 21 to waive the Standing Orders to allow for a debate on it and another report on border security contracts.
Natural Resources and Labour Minister Mitch Turnbull recused himself from the debate, noting that Mr. Skelton-Cline is his first cousin.