Churches Benefited! CoI Report Says Former Premier Made 'Unilateral' Decision To Increase COVID-19 Grants

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By Sonje Greenidge, Journalist

Updated 11:50 AM AST, Fri May 13, 2022

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(PLTM) - The Attorney General (AG) Hon. Dawn Smith submits that “grant awards were adjusted within the Premier’s Office without any effort to keep within the approved budget”.

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This according to information published in the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) report. The AG, according to the report, stated that “the Premier [Andrew Fahie] unilaterally changed the policy and the criteria for payment”. This claim is supported by Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom who agrees that while the safe reopening of religious institutions, the initiative “required very little funding to achieve”.

How did the funding for churches unfold?

On 8 July 2020, Cabinet considered Memorandum No 236/2020347, submitted by the Ministry of Finance which among other things, focused on the social impact of persons not being able to attend church.

The Virgin Islands society places a high value on Christian worship, and as a result, the memorandum highlighted the need for the safe resumption of religious gatherings. It outlined that the distribution of finances would directly assist religious institutions which were “adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic crisis to prepare themselves for re-opening”.

To this end, a $1 million package of support for daycares, private schools and religious organisations, which was to be disbursed through the SSB grant and via the Premier’s Office.

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After this decision was made by government, Cabinet approved an additional $1,392,818 to be granted via the programme.

However, 75 of the 94 religious institutions had not even applied for assistance. The report also stated that “of the 19 churches that applied, 16 had membership of below 200. No criteria were disclosed to the Auditor General that were applied to effect these changes; but the uplift appears to have been made without consideration of the financial effect of shut down, the costs of re-opening or the number of members, the nonapplicants of course not having even made an application for a grant”.

Similarly, while religious institutions experienced significant decreases in attendance during the height of the pandemic, at the time the programme had been administered, most of the religious institutions had regained the pre-Covid incomes. The report was also clear that there were no reasonable justifications for why the Premier allocated more funds to the institutions than they had applied for, and more alarmingly, more than Cabinet had approved.

A committee was also established to oversee this programme and to monitor its structure and internal operations. This included audits and the monthly provision of reports and updates to Cabinet. However, the report noted that “the absence of information (which was denied to the IAD373) left the IAD Director unable to prepare any analysis or perform any audit of the Religious Institutions Etc Programme”.

The social institutions that were to benefit from programme were required to sign a declaration which require them to ensure that funds were solely used for the intended purpose and that they would “remain in compliance with the COVID-19 health and safety protocols for re-opening”.

There was also a provision that if funds were used for other purposes, the Government would have to be reimbursed.

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However, the CoI report notes that the grants awarded to various religious institutions were inflated by 662% where the committee’s recommendation for disbursement $185,772.67 was increased to $1,415,000, but $1,554,000 was disbursed.

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