LONDON â€” The premier of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Andrew Fahie, is getting his retaliation in first â€” pushing back against allegations of deep-seated corruption in the Caribbean territory even before an official inquiry has finished its work.
The success of Fahie’s PR campaign, however, will ultimately depend on the conclusions of the inquiry, which are expected in January. The probe began early this year after ex-BVI Governor Augustus Jaspert went public with accusations ranging from run-of-the-mill mismanagement and graft to organized crime and cocaine trafficking with the participation of senior officials.
The BVI is a British Overseas Territory. Its chief executive is a governor appointed by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, on the advice of the U.K. government. The premier, Fahie, is elected by the territory’s House of Assembly and presides over a small Cabinet.
In an interview in the grand Mayfair offices of BVI House, the territory’s de facto embassy in London, Fahie branded allegations of gangsterism “irresponsible.”
Fahie, who also serves as minister for finance, admitted that deep reforms are needed to improve governance in the BVI. But he complained that Jaspert had gone public through the media without first using his own powers to dig into the allegations.
Furthermore, Fahie said, the ex-governor kicked off the inquiry without considering how resource-intensive it would be for the country of around 30,000 people, which is trying to recover from the pandemic as well as the devastating hurricane season of 2017.
“It poses a heavy challenge on the public officers,” said Fahie, declaring that the probe’s scope has widened to cover virtually every government decision of the past decade.
“Any country that has to be evaluated with such wide terms of reference would show some area where they have to improve administratively,” he said.
“The inquiry has consumed the entire public service,” he added. “And so far, it has shown no proof of corruption in the BVI.”
That comment hardly tells the whole story, not least because no final conclusions of any kind are due until January. But the judge running proceedings has already said the evidence he has seen suggests “that governance in the BVI is not all that it should be.”
Fahie’s assurances also don’t wash with groups like the NGO Tax Justice Network, which ranks the BVI as the world’s top corporate tax haven. Local media and the auditor general’s office have, for their own part, long flagged corruption concerns in areas such as public procurement.
Outright organized crime, however, is the thorniest question at the heart of the British taxpayer-funded inquiry, which started its final hearings last week. To date, no specific proof or indication of BVIâ€™s officialdomâ€™s involvement in such activities has emerged in the public evidence sessions â€” which has emboldened Fahie to reach out to media, accusing London of overreach.
There’s a concern among some of the BVI’s citizens and officials that the inquiry commission will propose a colonial-style power grab, imposing direct rule from London and stripping the territory of its autonomy. The U.K. took a similar decision with the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2009 after another inquiry found “a high probability of systematic corruption or serious dishonesty,” including suspicions of drug trafficking.
Fahie wouldn’t give a direct answer on whether the BVI should declare independence. But he declined to rule out the possibility, provided that the country is “ready” and willing to institute “order” before taking that step.
The picture painted by Jaspert â€” who now serves as the U.K. Home Officeâ€™s director-general of delivery â€” suggests corruption and criminal activity at the highest levels.
He gave more detail to his accusations in lurid testimony last month, describing a drug-trafficking network with involvement by government figures. Alongside longer-standing and well-known concerns of maladministration and petty corruption, it was “allegations of links to organized criminality and to those involved in the cocaine trafficking trade as well, including allegedly amongst those in the highest holders of office” that made him go public, he explained.
While not naming names, he said “credible public officers, leaders of some of our institutions, as well as credible members of the public” had come to him with specific allegations.
Since then, however, Jaspert has been keeping a low profile. A U.K. government spokesperson said it would “inappropriate” for Jaspert to comment on the ongoing probe. Jaspert also declined to speak directly with POLITICO for this story.
Mark Collins, the territory’s police commissioner, is another key player who has declined to comment on the allegations, citing the ongoing inquiry. Collins answers directly to the London-appointed governor rather than the BVI’s elected government.
The BVI, which sits close to the U.S. mainland, has long struggled to shake suspicions that it’s becoming a hub for the cocaine trade out of South America. Before Jaspert went public, the BVI suffered a reputational blow in 2020 when 2.35 tonnes of cocaine â€” worth some worth $250 million â€” were discovered, leading to the arrest of a police officer.
On the home front, successive BVI governments have also come under fire for failing to provide transparent decision-making on public spending and contracts. Independent media have suggested this has been going on for years with the full knowledge and tacit approval of the British government, since it hand-picks the BVI’s governors.
This line of criticism also emerges from investigations by the auditor generalâ€™s office, one of the few existing checks on the government. For years, it has published scathing reports on dubious or outright illegal decisions by the government â€” with only muted reaction from London.
Fahie, for his part, remains adamant that no inference of official collusion with drugs smuggling can be drawn from the current inquiry. And he defends his own patch, the financial services industry, calling it “one of the best regulated in the world.”
He also relishes his image as a former high-school assistant principal and practicing Methodist who still plays the organ during Sunday service in the churches on the islands he governs.
Fahie does concede there are “deficiencies” and potential “areas of improvement” in the administration of the BVI. Those include the frequent awarding of public contracts without open tenders; opaque recruitment policies to public office; and the generally poor state of record-keeping and accountability for official decisions, he admits.
But Fahie points to reforms set in motion under his watch â€” such as a code of conduct for elected representatives, as well as transparency and freedom of information measures â€” as evidence that he’s committed to improving the standing of the country.
“Transformation of the public service will take us a few years,” he said.
Easy demeanor aside, he pulls no punches on the subject of Jaspert. The ex-governor “needs to give the people of the Virgin Islands an apology, and not just throw mud on the wall and hope that something sticks,” Fahie demanded.
He praised the BVI’s new governor, John Rankin, who reports to Overseas Territories Minister Amanda Milling and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, whose Foreign Office is supporting the corruption investigation.
“The British government has put in place a governor who is responsible in his speech, experienced and respectful in the way he carries out his duties,” he said, in a nod to Rankinâ€™s previous job as governor of Bermuda. “That shows a step in the right direction.”