[Virgin Islands Daily News] British Virgin Islands Gov. John Rankin, in what he described as “deeply concerning”, said he has forwarded an audit that delved into the disbursement of $23 million from the Assistance Grants Program to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal probe and asset recovery.
In a statement released Friday, Rankin noted that in the past three years, the BVI government awarded a total of $23 million in grants across three ministries and the House of Assembly. The Premier’s Office, which was headed by Andrew Fahie who has since been arrested in Miami on April 28, on cocaine conspiracy and money laundering charges into the United States, accounted for 47% of the total grants disbursed, and 13 members of the House of Assembly awarded 39%.
Fahie’s Ministry alone disbursed $10,717,269.59, compared to $9,013,541.65 for the 13-member House of Assembly, an average of $693,346, leading Health Minister Marlon Penn to charge that the now-disgraced premier had a “slush fund” at his disposal.
Penn’s comments came during debate in the waning hours of the House of Assembly’s term, which ended on Friday, paving the way for new elections. He said Fahie ignored the Public Financial Regulations and legislative framework procurement for projects valued above $10,000.
“A number of the findings in the report are deeply concerning,” Rankin said in the prepared statement. “The funds were for the most part not governed by any financial rules or eligibility criteria and were hence not consistently distributed on the basis of need. All of the programs were absent of documented objectives and the audit highlights that individuals ‘within the orbit of the political arena may have received preferential treatment in the awarding of assistance.’”
The audit Rankin discussed in the Friday statement had been leaked and circulated online, minus redactions for confidentiality, prior to it being debated in the House of Assembly. Rankin has since ordered a probe into the leaked report and called for those circulating it online to cease and desist or also face a probe.
The audit findings, which was discussed and tabled by the House of Assembly during the waning hours of its term and prior to adjournment sine die on Friday, is now available to the public with appropriate redaction.
The audit was conducted in response to the Commission of Inquiry Recommendation B12, and covered Assistance Grants issued between January 2019 and May 2022. The 15-month probe into widespread fraud in BVI leadership was ordered by Rankin’s predecessor, Augustus Jaspert, in January 2021 and was conducted by Sir Gary Hickinbottom of Great Britain.
Also Friday, Rankin said the audit found more than 1,064 disbursements and over 400 transactions of $10,000, totaling $8,185,999.56, for an average disbursement of $18,949.04. It concluded that the Assistance Grants Programs lacked “controls that would promote equity, transparency and accountabilities” and that the programs were allowed to “operate unabated at the whims and pleasure of elected officials.”
“The operations of these programs, for the most part, did not serve to resolve any socio-economic deficiencies and were largely utilized to satisfy individual wants and desires,” he said. “The classes of persons who applied and received assistance from these programs included Permanent Secretaries and other senior public officers, attorneys and entrepreneurs.”
Further, Rankin noted “some instances were found where single applicants received in excess of $50,000 in a single payment. In one instance a senior public officer and their immediate family members received grants totaling $217,900 over the period.”
He added that the audit concluded “that there is evidence of abuse of discretionary authority by Members (of the House of Assembly) in awarding grants, as well as abuse by applicants who have utilized the deficiencies to benefit themselves significantly.” The grant programs also lacked cross-ministry communication and collaboration, and some applicants made and received assistance from multiple programs for the same purpose.
“In some cases, applicants received more funds than originally requested,” he said, noting that the “the 149-page appendix to the audit report sets out the amounts received by each individual beneficiary, applicant or vendor.”
According to the governor, the audit also found that programs operated by the Ministry of Communications and Works were specifically targeted toward projects like home repairs, and that the program operated by the Ministry of Education intended to serve academic and cultural purposes. The programs operated by the House of Assembly and Premier’s Office, however, “had no such limitations or focus and were utilized for an expansive array of purposes based on the Members’ or Ministers’ determination.”
“Let me assure the public that this audit in no way criticizes those who were deserving of assistance and legitimately asked for support,” Rankin said. “Rather, the audit exposes the lack of controls and criteria which appear to have allowed the system to be abused. I will be forwarding the audit report on Assistance Grants to the Attorney General’s Office for the Attorney General to assess whether the government should pursue recovery in any instances. I will also ask the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Police to assess if any offences were committed.”