Speaker of the House Julian Willock missed a scheduled appearance before the Commission of Inquiry on Monday, causing Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom to declare him “in willful default” of a summons.
Instead, Mr. Willock attended a virtual training session for Commonwealth Parliamentary Association members that day and delivered a speech denouncing the commission, which he called “vague and largely political in its scope.”
Originally scheduled to appear before the COI on Monday morning along with a handful of elected officials, Mr. Willock was the only no-show.
“The speaker has not responded to his summons which was returnable at 10 a.m. today,” COI Counsel Bilal Rawat said.
The speaker’s lawyer, Richard Rowe of Silk Legal, argued that his client was not compelled to respond to the summons under Section 16 of the Evidence Act.
However, the commissioner rejected this argument.
“I appreciate that the speaker has other obligations and important obligations to the House of Assembly,” he said. “Those obligations are reflected in the Evidence Act, which means that he’s not compellable when the House is sitting. He is compellable when the House is not sitting, which means that he’s in willful default of the summons today.”
Through his lawyers, Mr. Willock subsequently rescheduled his appearance for tomorrow. However, the speaker then sent an email in which he attempted to reschedule again for Monday of next week, according to the commissioner, who warned Mr. Rowe yesterday that the speaker was in danger of committing a criminal offence by ignoring the summons.
In his speech on Monday, Mr. Willock railed against the inquiry, which he said “was established with no consultation, nor proper communications, between the UK government and the duly-elected government or the House of Assembly of the Virgin Islands.”
He added, “Since then our regional partners through their parliaments have indicated their dismay at how the Commission of Inquiry was established.”
In his speech, Mr. Willock also called the COI a “colonial relic.”
“Many believe that the Commission of Inquiry was largely motivated by a former vexed governor [Gus Jaspert] as revenge because he was not allowed to violate the Virgin Islands Constitution,” he said, though he did not explain the violation Mr. Jaspert allegedly wished to commit.
The speaker also claimed that “parliamentarians in the UK along with the UK media would have learnt of the Commission of Inquiry announcement before the members of the Virgin Islands House of Assembly and the local media.”
The announcement of the commission of inquiry was made to the public by Mr. Jaspert via a Facebook statement on Jan. 18, and both local and international media reported it subsequently.
The speaker went on to allege that the commissioner scheduled hearings at the same time as planned HOA meetings on Tuesday, yesterday and today.
“Mr. Gary Hickinbottom still violated parliamentary sovereignty, norms, traditions, convention and the rule of law, by asking honourable members to appear before him on those dates, despite being told about the schedule of sittings,” Mr. Willock said.
However, on Monday, Sir Gary claimed that he was not told about the HOA sitting, even after meeting with members of the HOA earlier this month to determine when they would appear.
Mr. Rawat explained further. HOA members, he said, had been summoned to attend on Monday so that a timetable for the week could be agreed with input from the witnesses themselves.
“And unbeknownst to the commission, it seems that sittings of the House of Assembly were scheduled for several days [this week],” Mr. Rawat said on Monday.
In an earlier hearing on June 2, he added, the commissioner had announced that hearings with HOA members would begin on Monday with sittings on a four-day basis.
“No legal representative present at that hearing mentioned that the House might be sitting that week, or if it was sitting, the days on which it would be sitting,” Mr. Rawat said on Monday.
He added that the COI subsequently was able to arrange alternative dates with most HOA members.
During yesterday’s hearing, the issue arose again, when the commissioner explained that Mr. Willock, through his lawyers, had arranged to appear before the COI at noon tomorrow.
However, the commissioner detailed an email he said he received at 10:57 p.m. on Tuesday from Silk Legal lawyer Daniel Fligelstone-Davies, which he said appeared to have been sent from the speaker to the Silk Legal team.
Quoting the email, the commissioner read, “‘To date I’m not aware of when I have to appear before the Commission of Inquiry, as I have NOT’ — that word is in capitals — ‘seen anything in writing from you, nor a summons from a COI after indicating I was available on Monday the 14th of June, 2021 at 1:30 p.m. However, I will make myself available on Monday, June 21, 2021 at 1 p.m. I’m very busy with House of Assembly matters, as we have another sitting on Thursday, the 17th of June 2021.
Please convey to the commissioner that I will be on standby for Monday, and when they are ready for me, I will arrive. However, I will not be sitting in a waiting room for hours.’”
The commissioner then turned to Mr. Rowe.
“One is tempted to ask, Mr. Rowe: What is going on?” he said. The commissioner then asked Mr. Rowe to confirm that his client would appear tomorrow at noon, and Mr. Rowe confirmed that he would.
“So why were we sent this email?” Sir Gary asked.
Mr. Rowe responded, “We sent this email because he — we were instructed by our clients to do that.”
The commissioner responded, “I just want to make absolutely sure that there is nothing else we should do in your view to make him legally compellable. It’s important, because if he doesn’t turn up on a summons when he is due to turn up, that’s a criminal offence.”
Mr. Rowe said he had nothing further to add.
During his Monday statement at the CPA, the speaker also railed against the commissioner’s request that ministers submit “position statements” on specific questions of governance.
“The one-man commissioner had the audacity to ask the 15 grown adult members of the legislature to write him an essay on what is good governance?” he said.
The commissioner, however, had explained in a May 21 press notice that he made the optional request to allow “those given the right to participate in the COI … a proper opportunity to set out, before further hearings take place, those matters which they say should inform the work of the COI.”
But Mr. Willock called the instructions for the statements, including font sizes, formats, margins and page numbers, “insulting and disrespectful.”
“Could you imagine the further high-handedness of this one-man commissioner, to tell big men and women in which 13 were elected by the people of this country, that any statement that does not comply, will be sent back for amendments?” he asked. “Students nowadays in high schools and colleges are not even given such insulting instructions for a term paper.”
During his Monday speech, the speaker also called the COI “a public relation spin machine, so members of the House of Assembly who dares to stand up for their human and civil rights will be labelled as someone who has something to hide, resulting in them being tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion.”
He complained that the governor and areas under his portfolio, such as the police and spending within the Governor’s Office, “have been omitted out of the inquiry investigations.”
In fact, however, former Police Commissioner Michael Matthews did testify late last month before the COI.
Mr. Willock then echoed written complaints made to the COI by Mr. Rowe, who asserted in a letter last week, and again on Monday, that the COI violated the six so-called “Salmon principles,” which were set out in the report of a Royal Commission chaired by Lord Justice Cyril Salmon in
1966 and approved in a case from Antigua and Barbuda in 2003.
The second of those principles states that “before any person who is involved in an inquiry is called as a witness, they should be informed of any allegations made against them and the substance of the evidence in support of them.”
But the commissioner said on Monday that the principles “do not bite” until specific allegations have been made against a particular witness, and that none have been made against Mr. Willock or any of Mr. Rowe’s clients.
Sir Gary also added that the principles “have been the subject of considerable criticism in the last half century.”
In his Monday speech, Mr. Willock went on to detail a list of grievances against the UK. After the devastation of Hurricane Irma in 2017, he said, the territory sought assistance from the UK, but “got relatively little monetary help [except] for what some financial experts described, as a debt trap in the form of a ‘loan guarantee.’”
Premier Andrew Fahie has repeatedly complained about the apparently routine conditions attached to the UK’s offer of a £300 loan guarantee for the hurricane recovery, though the UK has said the loan guarantee would bring low-interest loans backed by the UK government to help repair and restore hurricane-damaged infrastructure.
As a condition of the loan guarantee, the spending would be managed by the Recovery and Development Agency in accordance with the RDA Act, which the HOA passed in March 2018 with the support of Mr. Fahie.
In the absence of the loan guarantee, the RDA has struggled to complete major recovery projects.
On Monday, Mr. Willock went on to assert that “without consultation, the UK demanded that the Virgin Islands create public registers of beneficial ownership for its offshore sector, a move that could cripple the industry particularly.”
The UK Parliament required public registers of all overseas territories by 2023 as part of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, but the VI government had said for years that it would not adopt public registers until they become a global standard.
In September 2020, Mr. Fahie joined the rest of the OTs in agreeing to work with the UK toward creating the registers, saying that the VI must hold to evolving global practices.