The U.S. Could Learn from the U.K. in the Virgin Islands

Corruption is a perennial problem in the Caribbean. Although many of the Caribbean islands are independent, many others are held by former colonial powers, including the United States and the United Kingdom, which respectively control adjacent island groups known as the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Encouragingly, over the last six years, the UK has undertaken significant efforts to crack down on corruption in the BVI. Disappointingly, the US has yet to follow suit. The US government—and, once appointed, the new US Attorney for the USVI—should follow the UK’s lead and make anticorruption a top priority.

Last year, the BVI’s Governor—who is appointed by the UK government to serve as the BVI’s head of state—announced, with the support of the UK Foreign Office, a sweeping independent inquiry into corruption in the BVI, including reports of egregious misuse of taxpayer money (for example, a £30 million Covid-relief fund being channeled to political allies, £700,000 of public money spent on a single school fence, and £5m on an airline that did not exist) and political interference in public appointments. (Notably, while the UK-appointed Governor initiated this inquiry, the BVI’s Premier—the head of government selected by the locally-elected House of Assembly—has been vocally opposed to the investigation.) Initially slated for six months, the investigation has been twice extended in response to “explosive” (though unproven) allegations that BVI government officials are involved in drug-trafficking networks; its final report is due next month.

What about the USVI? The USVI and the BVI are intimately interconnected, and it is implausible that the corruption that pervades the BVI would not also be a serious problem in the USVI. Every day, ferries between the USVI and BVI run hundreds of people between the islands—as well as cash and contraband. Many families have relatives in both territories, and it is common for even high-profile USVI officials to have “belonger” citizenship and property in the BVI, and vice versa. Given the permeability of cash and people between the two territories, it would not be unreasonable to assume that if one half of the Virgin Islands is embarking on a multi-year anticorruption endeavor, the other half would want to move in tandem. After all, as one USVI journalist put it—after noting that the BVI probe was prompted by concerns over “[w]rongful spending of public funds, … [m]ismanagement of public projects… [c]onflicts of interest and lack of fair and open competition for government contracts… [and p]olitical interference and coercion of public officials to circumvent protocols”— “for all who have eyes to see and ears to hear, is there any reason to believe that such allegations would not be true [in the USVI] as well?”

Yet there has not yet been any comparable investigation into USVI corruption, and no such investigation seems to be forthcoming. In fact, the United States seems rather uninterested in pursuing an anticorruption agenda in USVI. There have been occasional exceptions. In 2018, for instance, the US Justice Department convicted a former senator for the USVI for embezzling roughly $70,000. But usually the issue receives little attention. The USVI Inspector General and Attorney General are routinely denied funds to investigate corruption. And despite public calls since at least 2015, USVI remains the only US state or territory that doesn’t have an ethics commission.

 The USVI government could take mitigating steps on its own, of course. Funds should be approved for anticorruption investigations. An ethics commission should be established (notwithstanding some reasonable questions about the efficacy of such commissions – see here and here). But it’s probably not realistic to expect that the local USVI government will take significant action on this issue without external prompting. Part of the problem is that the USVI, like most other Caribbean islands, has a small and relatively insular population (just over 106,000 people). As one study observed, when discussing the nearby island of Sint Maarten, “[t]he fact that everyone knows each other incentivizes ‘looking the other way’ in response to potential red flags.” The US federal government therefore needs to take the lead in investigating corruption in the USVI.

 As the first step, the USVI’s U.S. Attorney’s office—the regional head of the federal Justice Department, which has the authority to investigate and prosecute all white collar and public sector corruption crime in the USVI—should follow the BVI’s example by initiating a top-down investigation into the USVI’s corruption problems. The BVI’s report in April could provide enlightening information and useful groundwork for such an USVI investigation. Further, this could be a politically expedient moment for such an investigation. The Biden administration recently nominated Delia Smith, a USVI native and experienced federal prosecutor, to the currently vacant post of U.S. Attorney for the USVI. If confirmed, Ms. Smith would be well positioned to lead the efforts to uncover and clean up corruption in the USVI. Following the BVI’s lead, she can and should make it a priority.

4 thoughts on “The U.S. Could Learn from the U.K. in the Virgin Islands

  1. This is an incredibly interesting piece, Zachary! I do hope the US follows suit and addresses corruption in the USVI much like the UK has. You write that, barring a few exceptions, the US has been largely uninterested in implementing anticorruption measures in the USVI? Is much of this explained by the fact that this is a relatively small and insular population, as you mentioned later on in the piece? What other reasons could be driving this disinterest? And, what kind of “external prompting” do you think would suffice to push local USVI government to take significant anticorruption measures?

  2. Zach, thanks for the terrific post. What I find fascinating about your account is that it raises a vexing question about why the U.S. Attorney’s office has not followed the BVI’s lead and taken a more aggressive stance toward corruption. Within the United States, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices have historically pursued local corruption. What differentiates USVI’s U.S. Attorney’s Office? I can think of several possible explanations–maybe, in the states, serving as a U.S. attorney provides a stepping stone to higher office, or opportunities in the bar, or the attorneys themselves have greater resources and feel a calling to root out wrong-doing. Whatever the explanation, it does seem with USA Smith’s appointment that we may now be following both the mainland American and the British example.

  3. This is a very interesting comparison, Zachary. As you mentioned, the USVI and the BVI are “intimately interconnected.” Do you anticipate the USVI will experience any additional pressure from the BVI to put a stop on their corruption in attempt to prevent its crossover into their jurisdiction? I would suspect that BVI’s recent efforts to combat corruption could be largely thwarted if trouble in the USVI goes unaddressed.

  4. This was a fascinating read! Sandy poses some interesting questions about why the US has not pursued USVI corruption in the same way that the UK has in the BVI. One possible, though entirely unsubstantiated reason might be located in your second paragraph: namely, that the UK is better able to wield influence in the BVI because its governor is appointed rather than elected, like the USVI governor. It may be that the democratic support of USVI leadership better positions the territory to resist probing matters from the US, especially on embarrassing matters like corruption. You mention that the BVI does have some locally-elected leadership (the Premier), so maybe the theory breaks down here, depending on the relative power of the BVI governor and the BVI Premier. But I wonder if you came across anything in your research which might support this explanation?

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