In his testimony before the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Friday September 24, Smith, who was FS at the time of the controversial deal, said BVIA had refused to provide the government of the BVI with their financial statements even though it was a requirement under the signed framework between the two parties.
However, he said BVI Airways indicated that they could have a representative of the BVI government travel to Fort Lauderdale to peruse their financial statements. Smith said he strongly advised former Premier and Finance Minister, Dr. Orlando Smith to take up the opportunity, but it was ignored.
“When the option of actually going to Fort Lauderdale, I thought that was amazing. We could go there and go through the documents as long as we don’t leave with anything. I thought it was amazing, even though I thought the financial statements in my view should be public anyway,” Smith told the CoI.
Smith, who was before the CoI for most of Friday, said, “it was my strong advice. I gave that advice to the Premier and Minister of Finance.”
Counsel to the Commission Mr. Bilal Rawat sought clarification: “a decision was taken that you should not travel to Fort Lauderdale, or no one from the BVI government should go to Fort Lauderdale to view these financial records?”
He also asked if the decision was made by Cabinet or one individual minister.
“The decision was that the BVI government would not go to Fort Lauderdale. I was speaking to my Minister, I don’t know…but I am fairly confident it wasn’t his decision alone. But I was speaking to him [Dr Smith].”
Rawat asked if he was given any reason for the decision and Smith said, ‘no’.
The Government of the Virgin Islands entered into a Framework agreement with BVIA and Colchester in 2015. The Government advanced $7 million to assist in the startup of the project and BVIA and Colchester undertook to provide a direct airline service between Miami and Tortola.
Despite the Government of the Virgin Islands providing the funds in accordance with its obligations under the Framework Agreement, flights between Miami and Tortola did not commence and the Government did not recover any of the funds paid in relation to the project. In November 2017 the Government terminated the Framework Agreement.
This had led to widespread criticisms of the National Democratic Party (NDP) administration as no commercial flights were conducted between BVI and Miami.
Based on the failed BVI Airways project and other projects, current Premier and Minister of Finance, Hon. Andrew Fahie has gone as far as to label the NDP administration as the most corrupt government in modern history. He has promised to pursue legal action against those responsible for the $7M fiasco.
Commissioner to the Inquiry, Sir Gary Hickinbottom asked the former Financial Secretary if the BVI was entitled to those financial statements. Smith said that the provisions of the financial statements were one of the requirements in the framework agreement.
Smith also rejected claims that there was no financial oversight, rather he said there was no effective financial oversight. He said he made prolonged representation of the financial statements but received something that was not good enough.
“But you know what I recognize is that one side I am trying to protect the government from possible litigation, I am not getting financial statements,” he said, pointing out that on the other hand he saw areas which made him comfortable.
These included that BVI Airways received all the regulatory approvals, verifying that the plan was had, for staff training.
“I cannot accept that there was no financial oversight. I would say it was not the type of financial oversight that I would have liked. As I began to get a little more unsettled as well, in order for BVI Airways to be given approval by the US Department for Transportation they had to actually prove that the venture was financially viable. So that’s another call, I know they were probably more open with the US Department for Transportation, and I also know they had to be fairly open with ASSI [Air Safety Support International],” he explained.
The former FS said: “When you get towards the end of the enterprise in 2017, then you begin to get into some rough waters as to why they didn’t go the extra mile to put on the service. All the things that were needed to be done were done, but they didn’t actually fly and that is the concern.”
Counsel Rawat then told Smith: “you are willing to concede that there was no effective financial oversight. In terms of financial statements, they were not forthcoming, but you were at least able to get some comfort from other information as to what BVI Airways was doing…give you some comfort that they were spending the money the government gave them in the expected manner.”
Smith said that the concerns raised by BVI Airways focused on confidentiality since there were several documents being leaked to the media and they were concerned that their financial statements if ended up in the hands of the BVI government system, would also be leaked.
“They were concerned about confidentiality…I think the concerns were credible, but I don’t think that was something they should have taken upon themselves to deal with. You had an agreement to share the financial statements,” Smith said.
Smith, in responding to questions, said that as financial secretary he carried out due diligence at the beginning of the process on the principles of BVI Airways- Mr Bruce Bradley, Mr Gerry Welb and Mr Scott Wiseman.
However, as red flags were raised, he began to question whether he had missed something. Smith said he used World-Check to do background checks on the men.
“World-Check is something that we use in financial investigation or where you check, you look at it for political exposed persons, or anybody, or people you are checking have issues with any other financial agencies and law enforcement agencies…might have people under investigation for money laundering or other stuff like that,” Smith said.
He told the CoI that it is the first line of defence.
“So that is what we normally do, that is the first line of defence. As a Financial Secretary I would use it to see if we have an issue. Subsequent to that, I actually had the director of FIA (Financial Investigation Agency) just say ‘hey check this for me’, and he did a check, and he didn’t see anything come up,” he stated.
According to Smith, after public controversy surfaces around the BVI Airways deal he had PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) do a more in-depth assessment of it.
“I mean we saw things that we knew about like the involvement in a failed enterprise before and those types of things, so it wasn’t no surprises really,” he added.
Counsel Rawat asked Smith: “the names didn’t carry any flags or didn’t come up at all?”
Smith emphasized that after issues were raised with the project, he asked the director of FIA to do an informal check on the names.
“I did that afterwards, I said maybe I had missed something, so I say ‘hey check this for me’…after the problems showed up, I was kind of saying, ‘Neil maybe you didn’t do this properly’. So I had somebody who had the skill set do it but he [FIA director] didn’t come up with anything either,” the former FS stated.
Rawat then asked, “was that after the $7M was paid?” Smith said, “no, it was during the payment.”
Smith continued, “I started to second guess myself…it was an unofficial inquiry [FIA] but it did not show anything.”
The former FS reiterated that he turned to PwC when things started to get ‘really controversial in the public’.
Rawat asked Smith if he undertook any other due diligence aside from World-Check.
“Nothing outside of the word of Mr [Lester] Hyman,” Smith said.
Counsel Rawat then stated, “why did you think that a background in real estate which is what Mr Bradley had and a background in investment banking which was Mr Scott Wiseman background, why did you think that experience meant that these individuals could run an airline?”
Smith said that he did not know Bradley, Wiseman and Welb before the project; rather he came to know them through Mr Lester Hyman.