April 20, 2001 — Despite the support of the territorys heavy hitters, the confirmation hearings for Cecil Benjamins nomination as Labor commissioner will continue next month so allegations of embezzlement and federal investigations can be investigated.
The Senate Rules Committee met Thursday in Frederiksted to begin the confirmation process. But after a day that brought charges of serious wrongdoing against Benjamin when he headed the St. Croix chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, Chairman Carlton Dowe decided to hold a second hearing May 17. It will be held in the evening to allow more teachers an opportunity to testify.
After several testifiers spoke for and against Benjamins nomination, Terrence Nelson, an AFT member and president of the Our Virgin Islands Labor Union, dropped the embezzlement bomb. He said that as president of the AFT for 25 years, Benjamin mismanaged, misspent and essentially stole money from AFT accounts. The allegations, he said, are currently being investigated by the FBI.
The Source was unable to reach FBI officials Thursday for comment on a possible investigation.
In response to Nelsons statements about the FBI, Benjamin told Dowe that he was "absolutely" unaware of any federal investigation.
Nelsons allegations involve an account the St. Croix AFT had with Merrill Lynch, a stock-brokerage firm. Nelson said that for 20 years, Benjamin siphoned off some $20,000 in annual dividends.
"The dividends from the Merrill Lynch account were never accounted anywhere," Nelson said.
He said that when AFT members overwhelmingly voted Benjamin out of the $68,000-a-year presidency last year, it was also discovered that the chapter owed the Internal Revenue Bureau $75,000 in taxes. But Nelson said AFT financial records showed that money had been allocated over the years for that purpose.
"There are allegations of embezzlement made here," Nelson said, urging senators not to hastily confirm Benjamin.
Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen tried to cool down the accusations.
"Allegations are just that until proven guilty," she said.
Senate Majority Leader Celestino White tried to paint Benjamin as a longtime V.I. Democrat supported by the party machine. White grilled Benjamin on the Democrats punishment of majority member Sen. Norman Jn. Baptiste for Jn. Baptistes split from the other Democrats in the Senate.
Benjamin steered clear of the partys treatment of Jn. Baptiste, who supported Benjamins nomination. In fact, Jn. Baptiste instigated discussion of a 1999 audit conducted by the national AFT on the local chapter that found no irregularities.
"I am satisfied with the gains you brought to me" as an AFT member, Jn. Baptiste said.
Yet another Democrat player and powerful union leader came out in support of Benjamin. Luis "Tito" Morales discounted the allegations against Benjamin, saying that in 1999, a court vindicated the former AFT president of the allegations brought by Nelson.
In response to the accusations flying around his 25 years at the helm of the St. Croix AFT, Benjamin said, "Sometimes you become the victim of your own success."