The outgoing governor of the British Virgin Islands, Augustus Jaspert, has established a commission of inquiry in response to allegations of widespread political corruption, misuse of public funds and intimidation in the islands.
In a statement published on Monday on the governor’s office Facebook page, Jaspert said, “The Commission will look into whether corruption, abuse of office or other serious dishonesty in relation to officials – elected, statutory or public – may have taken place in recent years.”
Jaspert, who is responsible for good governance and security under the BVI Constitution, said “the state of governance in BVI requires robust and impartial intervention” after his push for legislative reform had been met with “deliberate delays”.
“Our local institutions responsible for good governance feel hindered and unable to act without the laws and frameworks in place,” Jaspert said, adding that all other options were exhausted.
The commission will be led by Sir Gary Hickinbottom, until recently the Lord Justice of Appeal in the UK. Under the BVI’s Commission of Inquiry Ordinance, the commission will have powers to collect evidence and summon witnesses.
Jaspert said he had been approached by senior business leaders, public officers, community groups, the media and others with concerns relating to the standards of governance in the BVI.
These included the lack of transparency over the spending of public funds, specifically the COVID-19 economic stimulus measures, and the mismanagement of public projects.
“Successive audit reports have set out practices of political interference, inflated pricing and conflicts of interest,” Jaspert said. “These may have cost the public purse millions of dollars in recent years, with no sign of improvement.”
Similar concerns relate to the way government contracts are awarded without a proper procurement process; political interference in statutory bodies, including allegations of individuals being replaced by political allies; attempts of interference in the criminal justice system; and reports of intimidation and a growing culture of fear in society, public services and the media.
In addition, the governor said, there was growing evidence of serious organised crime infiltrating the BVI, such as the recent recovery of 2,300 kilogrammes of cocaine with a street value of US$250 million in the home of a police officer.
“Now let me be clear about the fact that these are allegations. However, they cannot be ignored and I must fulfil my Constitutional role to support the people and to uphold the peace, order and good governance of the Virgin Islands,” Jaspert said.
The last time a commission of inquiry was instituted in a UK Overseas Territory – in 2008 and 2009 – it found systemic corruption in government, the legislature and among public officers in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
In a written ministerial statement to the UK Parliament, Secretary of State Dominic Raab said successive attempts had been made to address the governance concerns through local institutions.
“However, the scope and seriousness of the concerns are now beyond local capacity to address.”
Raab said the UK government has a constitutional and moral duty to protect the interests of the people of the BVI.
“The Commission will inquire into whether there is information to substantiate claims that corruption, abuse of position and serious impropriety has taken place in public office in recent years, and it will make recommendations.”
The scope of the inquiry may be adjusted or extended as necessary.
“The Government expect the Commissioner to deliver his report to the Governor within six months. At this point, we hope that the UK and BVI will be able to consider the recommendations together in a constructive manner that best serves the people of BVI,” Raab said.