Former Minister of Communications and Works Mark Vanterpool last week denied that he “commandeered” the cruise pier project from the BVI Ports Authority or demonstrated “impropriety” in hiring his political associate Claude Skelton-Cline to lead the development, which eventually saw cost overruns totalling more than $30 million.
However, he did acknowledge that the initial procurement process for the project, which was not publicly tendered and ended in a failed deal, could have been handled better.
During a June 30 hearing before the Commission of Inquiry, COI counsel Bilal Rawat cited a 2014 report from the House of Assembly’s opposition-led Public Accounts Committee.
“It wasn’t the Ministry of Communication and Works who commandeered the project: [It was] you, yourself, as minister,” Mr. Rawat paraphrased the report as saying, adding, “Secondly, you did it without any consultation with the statutory authority responsible for that pier. And, third, you did it without a prior Cabinet decision.”
Asked if these allegations were true, Mr. Vanterpool, a current opposition member and Fourth District representative, replied, “Absolutely untrue. No, I did not.”
He added, “There was a project that we needed to pursue, that needed changing scope, and that recommendation was taken and pursued. One may term it commandeering, but they can call it whatever they wish, but I took that as my responsibility as minister to execute the policy of the
government at the time under the permission given to me under the BVI Ports Authority Act of 1990 and that is what I did.”
Mr. Vanterpool also said that the impression given by the report that he “pushed aside the board” of the BVIPA was “totally incorrect.”
Sir Gary Hickinbottom then said he was struggling to understand the former minister’s point and asked him to clarify.
“The Public Accounts Committee heard evidence from 10 people from the BVIPA, and as a result of hearing evidence from the BVIPA they concluded that the board was not participatory in vital decisions concerning the project, that they were not consulted, and based on their evidence the project was commandeered,” the commissioner said.
Mr. Vanterpool replied, “I will not refute the evidence. I just said what my position was.”
He also refuted the report’s claim that he decided without Cabinet approval to change the scope of the development from a projected $12 million effort to a planned $70 million.
“That would have never happened,” he said. “I don’t know where that evidence came from, but that’s not correct.”
He acknowledged, however, that the initial process used to select a developer “may not have been the exact procurement process that should have been followed.” He also agreed with the report’s claim that the process did not involve any form of public tender.
Instead, Mr. Vanterpool said, three companies — CaribInvest, Trident Development Enterprise LLC, and Tortola Ports Partners — “made a presentation to the government” because they knew the VI was seeking to expand the pier, but that they did not follow a formal process.
TPP was ultimately awarded the contract, but the deal fell apart in September 2013 after the parties could not agree to financing terms.
The project was then handed over to the BVIPA, which by then was headed by Mr. Skelton-Cline.
The COI also asked about Mr. Skelton-Cline, who was initially hired as a consultant on the pier project through a $96,000 no-bid contract in December 2011, the month after the National Democratic Party won an election and Mr. Vanterpool was appointed minister.
Sir Gary pressed Mr. Vanterpool about any qualifications that had prompted him to choose Mr. Skelton-Cline, who had no previous ports experience but had run unsuccessfully as an NDP candidate in the 2011
election. The former minister explained that Mr. Skelton-Cline — who was appointed managing director of the BVIPA in 2012 — was someone
he could “trust.”
The consultant contract did not require Cabinet to grant a tender waiver, and it was not awarded through a “competitive process,” Mr. Vanterpool conceded, but he insisted that this practice is not unusual.
“The [United Kingdom] does not always, when appointing a consultant, put it out to bid,” he added. “It was my prerogative as minister to select someone who I was comfortable with and who I felt I could trust to execute what I wanted to have done, and I’m sure there was a person who could be more qualified, but it was my position at the time as minister to select someone who I could trust.”
Mr. Rawat noted that the PAC report mentioned Mr. Skelton-Cline’s political connection to the NDP.
“That could be said to be an implication that there was some impropriety in your decision to appoint Mr. Skelton-Cline,” he said. “Was there any impropriety on your part?”
“Absolutely not,” replied Mr. Vanterpool.
He also objected to being pressed on Mr. Skelton-Cline’s qualifications, accusing the commission of not being “respectful.”
Sir Gary then interjected, “I understand that you’ve said that you appointed Mr. Skelton-Cline because you felt comfortable with him; you could trust him. And you thought that he would do what you wanted him
to do. But other than that, on your evidence, he had no other qualifications or experience for the job. And I think we just want to make clear that that is your evidence, anyway.”
“That is my evidence,” said Mr. Vanterpool.
After the project, Mr. Skelton-Cline’s contract as BVIPA managing director was not renewed in late 2015, and in 2016 he unsuccessfully sued the government over its refusal to renew the deal.