“I have sufficient information before me for me to conclude (as I do) that serious dishonesty in relation to public officials may have taken place in relation to this programme,” sole Commissioner of the CoI, Sir Gary Hickinbottom concluded.
To support the conclusion, the CoI report pointed to the circumstances and way in which the programme was ultimately formulated and implemented, the lack of openness, transparency and monitoring.
Further, the report also singled out the approach of the lead arm of the BVI Government, the Premier’s Office, to its obligations to give the Internal Audit Department (IAD) and the Auditor General access to information it holds to enable an audit to take place,
The programme all started when on March 20, 2020, Cabinet considered a memorandum prepared by the Ministry of Finance to assist fisherfolk and farmers who were experiencing economic fallout due to loss of income and had to meet an increase in local demand because of the reduction in importation.
According to the CoI, overall, the memorandum highlighted the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic as a justification for providing commercial fisherfolk and farmers with needed financial aid.
The memorandum specifically outlined that the money would be used to purchase supplies “to get our fisherfolks back in the water” and “to get our farmers back in their grounds”. Some $2M was therefore approved for this purpose, to be disbursed from a budget controlled by the Premier’s Office.
Days prior to his arrest in Miami on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, Premier Andrew Fahie held a press conference where he disclosed that over $5.3M was provided to fisherfolk and farmers.
The CoI report indicated that there are several concerns about the implementation of the programme which was initially an initiative to stimulate the agricultural and fisheries components of the economy.
The report stated, “However, after farmers and fishermen had made claims for the reimbursement of capital expenditure, the Premier unilaterally changed the policy and the criteria for inclusion.
“Instead of simple reimbursement, farmers and fishermen were each made a grant, the enterprises being categorised in bands on the basis of business “size”. The conditions were abandoned, and (it is now said) replaced by “back-end accountability”,” the report stated.
Simply put, back-end accountability in this context means that the farmers and fisherfolk were allowed to spend the monies first, and then explain after what it was used on which is not in alignment with the previously agreed-upon criteria.
Commissioner Hickinbottom concludes that the change in policy is “somewhat strange” and the political will to ensure that this process was transparent “appears to be faint”.
The report explains that there were some attempts to show that some level of accountability was utilized throughout the process, however, he continued by stating that he has no confidence in the “back-accountability” that was attempted.
Further, he noted that Office of the Premier jeopardised Cabinet’s desire to continuously audit the programme from its implementation.
Based on the information provided by the Government, about 89% of the recipients of the overall grants under COVID-19, including fishers and farmers, are still to provide the requisite information to the Government.
As of March 28, 2022, a total of 195 grant recipients have now responded.
To date, 1,223 Micro Small and Medium Enterprise Businesses (MSMEs) received stimulus grants totalling $7,406,521, but 120 of those recipients have responded to the Government’s call for information on how the monies were spent.
The Government had revealed that some 220 farmers received stimulus grants totalling $3,121,500. Based on the information provided by the Premier, 19 of those recipients have responded.
Some 213 fishermen and fisherwomen received stimulus grants totalling $2,222,000, but only nine responded.