Government consultant and radio personality Claude Skelton-Cline initially refused to answer many of the Commission of Inquiry’s questions on Oct. 4 after claiming its probe was unfairly focusing on him and was out of the scope of its remit.
“It feels like targeting and victimisation to me in my private capacity as a private citizen,” he said before the team went into detailed questions about his contracts with government over the past decade.
The COI began by examining his involvement with the Virgin Islands Neighbourhood Partnership Project, for which his firm Claude Ottley Consulting Ltd received $696,800 via four government contracts in 2009 and 2010, according to a report from the auditor general that he argued was misleading.
Then the commission probed his role in establishing the expanded cruise pier park, and then finished by asking him about more recent contracts that instructed him to put forward initiatives to generate at least $5 million in revenue for the territory — though he didn’t provide any clear examples of any money generated from his consultancies.
During the questions, Mr. Skelton-Cline repeatedly argued with Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom and COI Counsel Bilal Rawat, refusing to look at documents they put before him and painting himself as victim.
He also attempted to redirect the commission to government agencies and his previous testimony rather than answering the questions, asserting that he was the only witness called to testify about contracts received as a private citizen and that he was not obliged participate.
But Sir Gary countered that Mr. Skelton-Cline’s claim that he was the only private citizen called to testify was untrue, and he added that his perspective as a government contractor was important to the investigation.
“The evidence that I need to take to properly investigate governance and serious dishonesty in public office, that is a matter for me,” Sir Gary said. “There are serious suggestions in the evidence of really, really poor governance, and some of those suggestions relate to matters in which you’ve been involved. I need to drill into those matters, and you can help me do that.”
Mr. Rawat began his questions by asking about the Neighbourhood Partnership Project, which was the subject of a scathing report from the auditor general that alleged that the nearly $700,000 paid to Mr. Skelton-Cline’s consultancy over the course of two years had accomplished relatively little.
Mr. Skelton-Cline, however, told the COI he believed the project only faltered after a change in government and that he had delivered everything required of him. He repeatedly asserted that the auditor general’s report was “at best incomplete,” though he denied ever reading it.
He added that the COI would have to ask the ministry why the information it provided for the audit was deficient.
“The conditions of that contract to date were being fulfilled,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, whether by chance or otherwise, that the auditor general’s report is incomplete.”
Item by item
The auditor general’s report examined how Mr. Skelton-Cline’s consulting firm spent the money it was supposed to use to support schools and churches.
In Mr. Rawat’s questions, he went item by item through various discrepancies with Mr. Skelton-Cline, who repeatedly declined to read sections of the report or provide any further account of how the money was spent.
For example, in 2009 the firm spent $242,406.99 but did not provide any invoices, statements, cancelled cheques or other records to verify the expenditures for the audit, according to the auditor general’s report. Mr. Rawat asked what the firm should have suppled. “Whatever the conditions for the contract were, you’ll have to read the contract and see,” Mr. Skelton-Cline said.
“Whatever may have happened outside the contract, you’ll have to ask the ministry as to what information was provided. … Whatever I had at the time, I provided.”
The report also noted that churches and community centres reported multiple instances of delays and shortages in receiving promised funds to help set up the youth programme.
Some organisations reported receiving only $1,000 for equipment and other start-up costs when Mr. Skelton-Cline’s firm reported giving $5,000, according to the auditor general, who noted that these discrepancies added up to $27,200.
After explaining that finding, Mr. Rawat asked, “Is it possible that your records that you’ve submitted to the ministry may have been inaccurate?”
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Skelton-Cline replied.
The auditor general had also flagged $10,000 for a curriculum support system that organisations said was never delivered; $43,000 given to a company called MNP Technical Support, which Mr. Skelton-Cline said he couldn’t explain; $38,000 he gave to himself for starting the programme on top of the $98,000 already allocated to establish the programme; and $19,000 that went to “field coordination.”
Mr. Skelton-Cline, however, told the COI that he was not prepared to go into the particulars of his contracts.
He also said he had nothing further to add concerning an alleged lack of documentation for $19,062.60 in travel, airfare, and car rentals; $6,566.28 in training; $34,000 for computer supplies; $29,800 for faith-based community organisation; and $15,778.11 for other expenses.
No financial report?
Looking at the second and final year of the programme’s existence in 2010, the auditor general also said Mr. Skelton-Cline’s firm never presented a financial report. Instead, she noted, it produced only a summary that totalled $250,00 but that was missing supporting receipts.
This included $110,000 for faith based-organisations, $45,000 for a community service project allocation, and $25,000 in technical and capacity support, according to the report.
Mr. Rawat asked if Mr. Skelton-Cline remembered being asked to provide an official financial report, and he said no. He only remembered submitting an initial proposal and didn’t recall seeing a final budget approved by government, he said.
Looking at the project’s final hour, the auditor general reported that the acting permanent secretary requested detailed reports on its progress that the consultant never sent, resulting in the termination of the contract.
He received $82,000 from a 2009 contract and $125,000 from a 2010 contract, but $125,000 was left unpaid, according to the report.
But Mr. Skelton-Cline called allegations in the report “bogus,” saying he only remembered being asked for some receipts after the audit started, based on what he heard from friends at the time.
“The reason [for the contract termination] was purely political,” he said.
The commission then turned to his involvement with developing the cruise pier park, which was the subject of heavy criticism from another auditor general report in January 2013 as well as a report by the opposition-led Public Accounts Committee in June 2014.
The BVI Ports Authority approved plans in 2007 to expand the Wickhams Cay pier to accommodate larger ships. However, the scope of the project that was initially projected to cost $12 million dramatically increased.
After two unsuccessful attempts to launch a public-private partnership in the early 2010s, the project was taken over by the BVIPA and completed for more than $80 million with cost overruns of more than $30 million.
Mr. Skelton-Cline was involved in the project first as a consultant from 2011-2012 and then as managing director of the BVIPA from 2012 to 2015.
During the Oct. 4 hearing, Mr. Rawat gave him a chance to respond to several criticisms from the two reports. One criticism centred around his first appointment.
Then-Communication and Works Minister Mark Vanterpool recruited Mr. Skelton-Cline, a political associate, to consult on the pier project in December 2011, awarding him a no-bid contract about a month after the National Democratic Party won the general election.
Mr. Rawat quoted one PAC member — Andrew Fahie, who was then opposition leader and is now premier — as being “flabbergasted to hear that right after the November 2011 general elections, it transformed him into a ports expert.”
The COI counsel asked Mr. Skelton-Cline if, given his ties to the NDP at the time, political connections played any role in his appointment first to Mr. Vanterpool’s ministry and then to be BVI Ports Authority managing director in 2012.
Mr. Skelton-Cline acknowledged that he didn’t have specific experience with the cruise industry before signing his consultancy contract, even though the port expansion became a major focus of his appointment.
But he suggested that such expertise was not needed.
“My leadership qualities, my competencies, is what any person or entity who is engaging me will seek out,” he said. “Political affiliation or not is irrelevant, or rather independent of my competencies to execute whatever works or whatever services are being requested for me to offer. I need to make that emphatically clear.”
After outlining the auditor general’s allegations of inadequate transparency in planning the project, Mr. Rawat asked Mr. Skelton-Cline if he was involved in soliciting bids from three interested companies when the government was still considering a public-private partnership: Tortola Port Partners, CaribInvest and Trident Development Enterprise LLC.
Mr. Skelton-Cline denied doing so, claiming the ministry would have taken the lead on invitations, as well as cost-benefit analysis, needs assessments, estimates of cost, conferring with the Town and Country Department, and public consultation.
Sir Gary also asked Mr. Skelton-Cline to clearly define his role in the pier expansion as a consultant.
“If you look out these windows and you see what is now Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park, that’s what my leadership brings,” Mr. Skelton-Cline said. “That’s the end result of my mobilising and marshalling people. … That’s what I bring. I get things done. That’s why my consultancy, my agency, is sought out.”
After Mr. Rawat brought up the PAC’s claim that he and Mr. Vanterpool “essentially took over this project” from the BVI Ports Authority, Mr. Skelton-Cline said his only involvement was working closely with the minister to assist in carrying out the administration’s goal of expanding cruise tourism in the territory.
Sir Gary asked if he would have been responsible for identifying potential “pitfalls” during the project planning, like shortfalls in the developer’s paperwork or failures to keep Town and Country Planning in the loop. He said he was only “indirectly” involved in such matters.
“But if something popped up, again in the natural flow of things to advance the government’s agenda based upon my terms, then I would have sought to help it get remedied or at least bring it to the requisite authority’s attention,” he said.
The commission highlighted one specific example of his involvement as a consultant as described by the PAC — providing an invoice for $3 million to purchase piles needed to move the project forward despite concerns expressed by the Ports Authority board.
“The reason I put that to you is because it is a very specific example of you being very intimately involved in this project, but that seems standing contradictory to what you said your role was as a consultant,” Mr. Rawat asked. “So were you not involved at all in that level of detail?”
But Mr. Skelton-Cline said the claim that he pushed the invoice forward was “the greatest absurdity I have heard.”
Conflicts of interest?
At the end of 2012, Mr. Skelton-Cline took up his role as managing director of the Ports Authority under a three-year contract, shortly after ending his consultancy.
Mr. Rawat asked if his previous work on early iterations of the agreement with developers, particularly Tortola Port Partners, placed him in a conflicting position considering part of his new job was sitting on the BVIPA tenders committee that would eventually decide who got the contract.
“That’s bone-headed political nonsense,” Mr. Skelton-Cline responded. “On the part of the Public Accounts Committee, that is wilful and malicious. What conflict of interest? … My work and my worth is on behalf of the advancement and development of this place I call home. When I err, I err on their side. I don’t take no other sides. My convictions are such that it doesn’t necessitate any compromise of any kind under any circumstances.”
He continued, “As to whether or not TPP had some advantage, well, you can toss that around, but at the end of the day, substantively and factually as to what my role was in ensuring that this cruise pier development happens based upon the government’s mandate — that’s what I champion.”
He did not believe Tortola Port Partners had an unfair advantage, he said.
When the project came back to the BVIPA after the TPP deal flopped in November 2013, Mr. Skelton-Cline said, it was mainly because the authority couldn’t engage in such a capital project without prior approval from government, specifically the Ministry of Communication and Works and the Ministry of Finance.
He said the BVIPA attempted to tighten the budget, but it had to balance that with the time-sensitive nature of an evolving cruise line industry, and the budget stayed around $72 million.
Lastly, the commission examined some of Mr. Skelton-Cline’s more recent contracts to consult on government initiatives like renewable energy, job creation, and establishing a medical marijuana industry. The contracts have repeatedly come under fire for not being publicly disclosed despite his claims that they are available.
One contract with his firm Grace Consultants ran for six months, starting the month after the Virgin Islands Party came to power in the February 2019 general election.
Mr. Rawat pointed out that the contract was signed a few days after Mr. Skelton-Cline was supposed to start his consultancy. Later contracts were delayed by several months, though he said he never stopped working during that time.
Asked to explained the date discrepancy, Mr. Skelton-Cline again attempted to redirect the COI to government officials, claiming he was being victimised as a private citizen questioned in the investigation.
However, Sir Gary noted that the other party to the contract was the government and that Mr. Skelton-Cline was not the only private citizen called to testify.
Mr. Rawat said his first postelection contract had a variety of focuses, including climate change and renewable energy; a jobs programme; youth empowerment; telecommunications; and Prospect Reef. He asked who approached whom about the contract, and Mr. Skelton-Cline said it “may have been mutual” after the VIP won that year’s election.
Sir Gary asked the question again, and Mr. Skelton-Cline said he had the conversation with the newly elected premier, Mr. Fahie. He said he and the premier engaged in discussions before he sent a “strategic advisory agreement” to the premier’s permanent secretary on March 8, 2019.
Mr. Rawat asked who started those discussions.
“It was on both ends,” Mr. Skelton-Cline said. “I’m not sure why this is so difficult to understand. It’s both entities. An election was just won, of which I was a part. The new government is going to power. They are assessing, I guess, what all their needs are. I have a certain skill set which could have been brought to bear at different levels, and so mutually that would have been had. So if the suggestion is that somehow the contract was a political favour, then I would have to say very quickly again, there is a certain skill that Claude Skelton-Cline has that God has gifted me with. One reason or another, it is sought out and has been particularly by governments for the purposes of which we speak.”
His job was to “assist in broad strokes” as the new government began work on issues like establishing a board for overseeing the development Prospect Reef, he explained, adding that he was also responsible for pursuing any other directive the premier gave.
Mr. Rawat asked what specifically he was required to achieve by the end of his contract.
Mr. Skelton-Cline replied that he was supposed to get an “understanding” of the status of the subjects covered in the agreement.
The counsel then quoted from the contract, noting that Mr. Skelton-Cline was asked to identify key priorities and translate them into a “comprehensive strategic plan.”
The final report Mr. Skelton-Cline delivered at the end of the contract added a few topics he had canvassed at the premier’s request — medical marijuana, a special committee on cruise tourism and a floating pier extension, the Shores development, and medical schools — as well as the “innovative business lab” to promote small business development, Mr. Rawat summarised.
Asked more about his work as a consultant, Mr. Skelton-Cline explained that he focused on providing information for government leaders to decide how to move forward on specific initiatives.
“My job was to pull the fragmented pieces together in some kind of a whole as to what it would take to advance the initiative forward,” he said.
Asked about the lack of visible results of many of his efforts, he blamed government for failing to move forward with his recommendations.
Mr. Rawat asked, “You explained that the role that you play as the consultant that every single focus area that you reported on was identified as ongoing, so you hadn’t actually brought anything to fruition within the six months of the contract life, had you?”
Mr. Skelton-Cline replied, “No. You are absolutely wrong, Mr. Rawat, for even suggesting that, and this is why you should ask the government to provide you in their estimation the value, the tremendous amount of value, that they received from Grace in that very short period that give them tremendous ammunition to move a multiplicity of projects forward. So, I absolutely, out of hand, reject the notion and what you’re suggesting is that nothing was brought to fruition?”
He conceded, however, that none of the projects included in his first contract were “finished,” even though he maintained that significant work had been done to further them.
Second, third contracts
Mr. Skelton-Cline also secured 12-month contracts beginning in September 2019 and September 2020, which were worth $12,000 monthly, a decrease from the $16,330 in the first contract.
Mr. Rawat pointed out that the new contracts were very similar to the first, even though for multiple initiatives there wasn’t much more for a nongovernment consultant to do until Cabinet took action to appoint the boards Mr. Skelton-Cline had recommended or other take other necessary action.
Mr. Rawat also noted that the COI never received a copy of any document setting out his duties in the second and third contracts despite multiple requests.
The objectives of the second and third contracts included developing a portfolio of at least three revenue-generating initiatives that would generate at least $5 million, Mr. Rawat said.
Asked about reporting requirements, Mr. Skelton-Cline said he technically was supposed to deliver weekly reports, but the financial secretary considered this requirement “unreasonable” given the nature and scope of his work and instead requested quarterly reports.
“This contract on its face could not be filled in the way it was thought out because the pandemic hit,” he added.
Sir Gary responded, “I understand that the pandemic may well have had an effect on your ability to perform any obligations under the contract, but what you’re saying is you signed the contract, then you had a conversation with the financial secretary after signing the contract which substantively changed your obligations under the contract in respect of what you did in terms of due diligence, market research, financial analysis modelling, forecasting, social impact as one group of obligations which you no longer bore; and secondly, not weekly update but quarterly updates.”
“Correct,” Mr. Skelton-Cline said.
He also claimed that the monthly reports he delivered were oral.
The deliverables he described in his written status reports were similar to those laid out under his initial contract, Sir Gary said, and Mr. Skelton-Cline again noted multiple instances where progress was “out of his hands” until government moved forward with appointing boards, selecting contractors, and other official actions he couldn’t take as a consultant.
What work done?
Sir Gary said he still struggled with understanding exactly what consulting work Mr. Skelton-Cline did over the course of the three contracts.
Mr. Skelton-Cline responded that the expectation of delivering on $5 million of revenue generation was largely swamped by Covid.
“I understand that some of these initiatives may, in the future, bear fruit in terms of income,” Sir Gary said. “That’s not what the contract says. The contract’s quite clear that within the 12-month timeframe, $5 million will be generated. That has not happened.”
Sir Gary asked if Mr. Skelton-Cline was aware of any income that was actually raised through any of the initiatives to date, and the consultant said he wasn’t privy to that information.
Asked if anyone brought up the fact that he had delivered only five of eight quarterly reports for his second and third contracts, Mr. Skelton-Cline said only that he produced all the reports required for his compensation.
No contracts now
He claimed to no longer have any government contracts, though he said he is still involved on the secretariat of the Economic Advisory Council.
“Were you given any reason why you would not be asked to continue as a consultant?” Mr. Rawat asked.
“No. I have put that to the government, privately, my reason,” he answered. “If they wish to share that with you, they are welcome to do so.”