Day after day, Sir Geoffrey Cox, the UK attorney general during the Brexit crisis, has been sitting hunched over a pile of court papers trying to prove to the UK government not that a member of his Torridge and West Devon constituency is innocent of corruption, but the innocence of the prime minister of the British Virgin Islands.
His understanding of the complex constitution of the BVI, a British overseas territory, is masterful, including its relationship with London, auditor reports on how the BVI spent hurricane cash, or indeed the procedures for chairing the BVI cabinet.
He is acting on behalf of the attorney general of the BVI, but his chief client is Andrew Fahie, the prime minister, who is defending himself and his government from allegations of misgovernance and corruption, at a commission of inquiry held on Tortola, the BVI’s largest island.
Ironically, one of the issues in play is the fate of the island’s Integrity in Public Life Act, as well as breaches of the BVI MPs Register of Interests Act. The BVI register is closed to the public and so is, arguably, ineffectual.
Cox, his baritone voice familiar to Brexit aficionados, has been nothing but indefatigable, often spending eight hours in front of the commissioner for up to a month at time. His chief strategy is to try to turn the inquiry from an examination of corruption and misgovernment in Fahie’s administration into a cross-examination of the near-colonialist conduct of the now departed governor, Gus Jaspert.
It was the governor who set up the commission in January 2021 with the blessing of the UK Foreign Office. Such commissions are rare, and established only when the governor believes there is an issue of concern in an overseas territory.
Presiding has been Sir Gary Hickinbottom, a former judge of the supreme court of the Falkland Islands, among other distinguished postings.
The hearings have ranged across auditing, corruption, the appointment of friends to public office and the lease of valuable land for as little as $1, not to mention allegations of drug running and the granting of citizenship or “belonger status” to an alleged rapist.
Hickinbottom has hinted that, in his view, the commission hearings have unearthed problems. “It’s clear from the evidence that I’ve seen, to put it mildly, that governance in the BVI is not all that it should be. I will have to determine in various areas the state of governance. But the evidence in some areas is pretty clear.”
Examples of poor governance pitched by Jaspert include repeated tender waivers, the employment of consultants without competition, and the transparency of appointing people to statutory boards. The terms of a UK government $300m loan guarantee scheme to help the islands recover from Hurricane Irma has also featured, along with a Covid recovery fund, a contract to use barges to protect the islands during the pandemic and, more mundanely, the building of a school wall.
At times the exchanges have become heated, with one witness accusing Cox of being reckless in his allegations.
Fahie has been indignant at the allegations Jaspert has thrown at him, saying: “When a person of a higher office goes to the public and throws out innuendoes like that – being the governor – without evidence, without proof, the irreparable damage that it does to person’s character and to the territory leaves scars and leaves persons wondering if this person running the country is a drug runner, if this person is in organised crime.”
He has also accused the UK government of corruption in the distribution of contracts during the Covid crisis.
Very little time has been spent discussing the whys and wherefores of the BVI’s tax haven status, except indirectly through the BVI government’s increasing determination to be constitutionally free of UK demands to publish a register of beneficial share ownership on the islands. The UK has been close to imposing a public register.
Cox does not always fly to the BVI, but instead appears on a screen in an office with the background blurred. His salary is not known, but Fahie told the BVI parliament that the government legal costs were capped at $5m (£3.6m), and so far had reached $3m. Sir Geoffrey is formally tasked with leading the government’s inquiry response unit.
The commission has nearly completed its evidence-gathering process during 50 different evidence sessions, but Cox wants the former governor to reappear later this month to give further evidence. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, the public were not allowed to attend the commission, but could watch almost all the exchanges on livestreams. The UK taxpayer pays the core cost of the inquiry.