Former Financial Secretary (FS) Neil Smith said he was convinced the BVI’s investment partners in the planned BVI Airways initiative were decent people.
This conviction likely helped to pave the way for his nod of approval to former Premier Dr Orlando Smith to move forward with the multi-million-dollar deal with the airline.
The deal saw the National Democratic Party (NDP) administration dumping 7.2 million of taxpayer dollars into BVI Airways to facilitate direct flights between the BVI and Miami, USA back in 2016.
The former Financial Secretary said he was the one charged with the responsibility of doing any due diligence on the parties involved.
FS Smith told the ongoing Commission of Inquiry (COI) that generally, agreements were only actually inked after airlines were in operation.
However, he described the situation for the then government as a “chicken and egg scenario” whereby they wouldn’t get an interline agreement if they wouldn’t operate, and couldn’t operate if they didn’t have interline agreement.
Verbal agreements and trust between parties
He further expressed that the administration was “pretty confident” at the time that they would have the interline agreements in place.
According to FS Smith, “there were verbal contracts”.
“Let me put it that way … were actually engaged in these interline agreements, you know, for purposes of having a verbal agreement, it was just trust between parties, I guess,” said FS Smith who is a trained engineer, among other things.
Although the parties were headed toward a framework agreement subsequently, FS Smith told the COI he decided against bringing any other consultants on board because he had confidence in his ability to “assess these things” because of his background.
He explained that this was not just his financial acumen, but also his academic training and experience with the Ministry of Finance where he had served for years as the Financial Secretary.
“Mathematics is something that we like, engineers like, and the finance acumen on top of that helps, so I had a pretty good understanding of how the model is created and how to apply sensitivity testing – to stress-test the models,” FS Smith said.
He continued: “You know, I had done them before or in [the] Electricity [Corportation]. I had done things like this — not with aeroplanes but with models that you use to make financial projections and also in that case in the BVI Electricity to make projections on load and share and stuff like that, so I was pretty confident in the mathematics.”
Smith said he concluded – after consultations with BVI Port Authority members – that it also wasn’t necessary at the time to incur additional costs to tell him something he had already figured out, hence there was no need for extra consultants.
Due diligence done on world search
The former Financial Secretary told the COI that he used World-Check — a financial services investigation tool to look into several of the individuals behind BVI Airways and assured himself that they were appropriate individuals to undertake the venture.
Some of those individuals included Colchester Aviation chairman, Scott Weisman; Lester Hyman; Bruce Bradley; and Chief Executive Ofﬁcer and President of the airline, Jerry Willoughby.
“I investigated via the internet, I should say, on the workings of Mr Bradley, [and I] was aware of his strong business acumen, the concerns that he had, and concerns [and] enterprises that he had engaged in,” FS Smith explained.
He said he also looked at Weisman, who at the time was a member of a bar association and found there were no existing concerns for either of the two gentlemen.
“All of those things concerned convinced me they were decent people to work with,” FS Smith declared.
“Mostly, it had to do with [me being satisfied] there were no concerns based on my investigations. So World-Check and, number two, because of the demonstrated business acumen that he had,” he further explained.
Smith said he was not concerned that Hyman — whom the administration had worked with previously, and who brokered the airline deal — may have had a conflict of interest.
According to FS Smith, the major part of the airline was running the business. “So, if you’re a good businessman or you have a proven track record of dealing with businesses and making investments, then you have the skills to have a successful venture,” he explained.
The former Financial Secretary, however, conceded that it was concerning that the astute businessmen were not willing to sign up to a framework agreement that incorporated in writing their indication to post $6 million of their own funds into the venture.
The government recently won an arbitration against the company after it was sued for $10 million. The arbitrator reportedly rejected all claims BVI Airways Inc and Colchester Aviation LLC made against the Government of the Virgin Islands.
The government is now trying to recoup the $7.2 million spent on the airline.
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