With their talc-white beaches, aquamarine seas and lack of income tax, the Turks and Caicos Islands have made a virtue and a fortune in recent years out of selling themselves as a fiscally-seductive Caribbean paradise. The British dependency's tourist board describes it as: "A tropical classic, a throwback in time where relaxation is unavoidable and rejuvenation ensured."
While 260,000 holidaymakers flock each year to sip cocktails and open bank accounts in this high-end hideaway, the reality of life for its 30,000 inhabitants is not so idyllic. According to a retired Appeal Court judge last week, that evocative description could read: "A tropical national emergency, a throwback in time where general administrative incompetence seems unavoidable and serious dishonesty [in government] may well be ensured."
Such is the apparent state of political life in this low-rise archipelago annexed by Britain in 1799, that some 4,300 miles away in the Houses of Parliament this week an order from the Queen will be laid suspending large parts of the islands' constitution and in effect returning the territory to direct rule from London for two years.
Rather than sending a detachment of Royal Marines to storm ashore at Cockburn Town, the islands' diminutive capital, the Foreign Office confirmed yesterday that it is preparing to send a crack squadron of technocrats to act as advisers during a root and branch overhaul of key parts of government.
The arrival of London's emergency state-building team was hastened yesterday when it emerged that the islands' charismatic political leader, Premier Michael Misick, had resigned from his post a week earlier than expected after six years at the head of a scandal-plagued administration.
The dramatic turn of events is the culmination of a nine-month inquiry that uncovered allegations ranging from endemic corruption and sharp practice involving the sale of public land to the penchant of Mr Misick for adultery, private jets, designer suits and "buying" his Hollywood actress wife a white Rolls-Royce Phantom.
Sir Robin Auld, the respected former judge commissioned to carry out an investigation into the governance of TCI (as the islands are known), this week published an incendiary interim report which found "information in abundance pointing to a high probability of systematic corruption or serious dishonesty" and concluded there were "clear signs of political amorality and immaturity and of administrative incompetence". It is a very different picture from the vision of an unspoilt Caribbean bolt hole, whose status as a British Overseas Territory means its defence and economic stability is guaranteed by the UK, and which has attracted celebrities including Bruce Willis, Michael Douglas, Keith Richards, and Oprah Winfrey.
A series of hearings this year revealed a web of overlapping responsibilities and allegiances on the islands. As well as being Premier, Mr Misick, a lawyer, performed the roles of ministers of tourism, civil aviation and planning as well as being an estate agent, a law firm consultant and a director of property companies.
Sir Robin revealed the islands to be an equatorial basket case where trial by jury needed to be suspended to avoid political interference and a special prosecutor appointed to deal with "chronic ills collectively amounting to a national emergency". Sir Robin added: "There are widespread fears on the part of the people of [TCI] that they are leaderless and that their heritage is at risk."
The retired judge declined to go into details about the corruption allegations, saying his final report next month will look at whether criminal investigations should begin against individuals. Among those may be Mr Misick, who repeatedly denied any wrongdoing during four days of questioning in January.
Since coming to power in 2003, the debonair politician, scion of a powerful Turks and Caicos family and until last month leader of the governing Progressive National Party (PNP), has dramatically increased the size of the islands' economy. Tourism has risen from 175,000 visitors per annum to 264,000, thanks to the arrival of a succession of luxury resorts, while GDP has soared from $216m (£149m) to $722m.
Mr Misick enjoyed a corresponding rise in his own wealth. In 2003 his assets were around $50,000 but by the time he separated from his second wife, LisaRaye McCoy Misick, last year, his estimated wealth was put at up to $180m, including $20m in undeclared loans from foreign companies and members of his government. Asked why he was paid more than the British prime minister, Mr Misick said: "I have done more for the Turks and Caicos than Gordon Brown has done for England."
Sir Robin's commission heard how Mr Misick and other ministers had grown rich by acquiring publicly-owned Crown land, selling it to developers and receiving commissions. One deal saw an east European mogul secure land worth millions for an annual rent of £170.
A letter was produced from the islands' minister for natural resources, McAllister Hanchell, awarding himself a grant of Crown land: "Dear Honourable Hanchell, I refer to your request for a freehold title. I am pleased to inform you in accordance with Cabinet's decision, it has been agreed freehold title shall be granted. Yours sincerely, Honourable Hanchell."
The minister, who denied any wrongdoing, said the document was accepted practice.
Ms LisaRaye McCoy Misick, an actress in the hit American sitcom All Of Us, has had her day in court. Ms McCoy Misick laid bare the lifestyle she shared with her husband after they met at an awards ceremony in 2005, including a private jet hired for flights between her Hollywood home and the islands at $100,000 per return flight during their courtship as well as the building of an $8m Los Angeles house.
Ms McCoy Misick said she had planned to redecorate the interior of another jet, complete with a carpet bearing a crest designed for the couple. Mr Misick spent £190,000 on jewellery and charged more than £600,000 to an American Express card in 2006, Sir Robin heard. Ms McCoy Misick, 31, had spent £137,000 in a month on clothes.
Mr Misick arranged for his wife, a former model, to receive $300,000 to front an advertising campaign for the islands as well as £150,000 for trial shoots for a reality TV show about the couple's life.
The actress told the inquiry: "We had a quick romance. Michael asked me to marry him a month after [we met] and I was blown away because I had just wrote a list of the type of man that I wanted in my life, and I kind of felt God sent him to me to take me away."
But the jet and a £267,000 Rolls Royce Phantom presented for her birthday turned out to be hired through her own company, she claimed, leaving her liable for $6,900 monthly rent. Mr Misick fathered a child with another woman in the first year of their marriage. The former premier admitted in his resignation statement this week that "mistaken judgment" had left him with "regrets and personal pain and agony" but added that he believed he still had "majority support" among islanders.
The likely imposition of a form of direct rule raises echoes of Britain's colonial past which Mr Misick has not been slow to exploit. In a statement which called for the UN to intervene against the "strong arm of modern colonialism", Mr Misick said: "The suspension of the executive and legislative branches of our government by the colonial masters are draconian measures."
The Foreign Office points out that islanders will sit on bodies set up with the TCI's British governor, Gordon Wetherell, to maintain accountability. The Foreign Office said: "There would not be a shift to indefinite direct rule, rather a targeted intervention which would last no longer than it takes for necessary reforms to be implemented."
Turks and Caicos: A relic of empire
*The islands are situated 600 miles south-east of Miami and cover 166 square miles across 28 islands.
*TCI is a British Overseas Territory which is normally self-governing. Executive and legislative power is ceded by a British governor to an elected assembly. London is responsible for defence.
*Two-thirds of the population of 30,600 live on the main island, Providenciales.
*Most of the visitors to the islands are American and the currency is the US dollar.
*Canadian legislators have made regular overtures to unite with TCI. Nova Scotia voted in 2004 to invite the islands to join the province.
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