Last week government backbencher Mark Vanterpool once again got permission to retain his seat in the House of Assembly while one of his businesses secures a government contract.
To make that happen, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley added a new resolution to the HOA order paper on Aug. 11, and it was immediately considered and voted through by members.
Under the Constitution, a member of the House must vacate their seat if they become a party to a government contract without receiving an exemption by a vote of the HOA.
In this case, a company for which Mr. Vanterpool serves as director — Shoreside East Development Limited — aims to rent out property located at Block 2838C Parcel 100 in Lower Estate, Road Town for use by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour, according to the resolution.
The proposed two-year contract, which would commence retroactively as of May 1, 2022, had not yet been formally signed as of Aug. 11, the resolution stated.
Dr. Wheatley noted that the ministry has been leasing space from Pusser’s, which Mr. Vanterpool acquired in March 2021.
“He inherited this lease, and he has not been able to move forward in signing a contract for the lease, because it must first come to the House of Assembly so that he can be exempted from vacating his seat,” the premier said.
There was no debate on Aug. 11 before members voted in favour of Mr. Vanterpool’s exemption. They then recessed, planning to return on Sept. 6.
Mr. Vanterpool has sought similar exemptions in the past, including for Shoreside’s purchase of a building in the Lower Estate area from Maddog Limited on Nov. 3, 2021.
The government had a two-year lease for the third floor of that building dating back to May 11, 2020, and the remainder of the lease was being transferred to Mr. Vanterpool’s company.
The company was also in the process of negotiating with the government to lease additional space in the building.
Then-Premier Andrew Fahie said during a March 10 sitting that the disclosure was a simple matter of transparently abiding by the laws of the territory. There was no further debate before the motion passed.
The Commission of Inquiry recently drew attention to the exemption process during its investigation.
In hearings last year, COI Counsel Bilal Rawat cited two September 2020 resolutions, one of which exempted Mr. Vanterpool from vacating his seat due to the fact that his company K-Mark Foods, the parent company of One Mart, signed a contract with government to provide food packages to residents in need during the pandemic.
Mr. Vanterpool told the COI that he had been approached by the Department of Disaster Management and invited to supply the packages. He said he was exempted in the case of his contract to provide food packages during the pandemic lockdown, but he was not “regularly exempted” in the case of providing ongoing general food items for government.
The second resolution concerned the transfer of Crown land to Shoreside. In that case, he explained, the Ministry of Health and Social Development was purchasing approximately six acres of property from an individual, a portion of which contained a seabed lease of which four years had expired.
He said the Crown lease had to be transferred to Shoreside to facilitate the purchase of the property.
The COI noted in its final report that the exemption option is necessary in a small territory because of “obvious practical difficulties” where a person may want to seek office without being excluded from competing for government business, as explained by Attorney General Dawn Smith.
However, COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom also noted the importance of adhering to the provision that such declarations must be made “as soon as practicable” — and under clear guidelines.
The exemption process is now getting additional scrutiny.
Under the post-COI reform framework agreed by the United Kingdom and VI governments, the governor is required to select a suitable reviewer, such as a senior jurist, to review the practice of HOA members contracting with the government, including statutory boards. The completed review must be delivered to the governor and premier by Dec. 31.
Denniston Fraser, former managing director of the BVI Airports Authority, has been appointed to lead the review, Governor John Rankin announced on Aug. 10.