79.6 F
Cruz Bay
Monday, May 27, 2024


May 2, 2001 – V.I. Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt has concluded that the government overpaid five retired judges by $485,801 and seven former legislative employees by $242,502, by giving them lump-sum payments for accrued leave to which they were not entitled.
In an audit released Tuesday, van Beverhoudt says that a $414,209 lump-sum amount for retired Territorial Court Presiding Judge Verne Hodge was overstated by $376,770. Hodge has actually been paid $165,684 of the amount and contends he is entitled to the rest.
Controversy over Hodge's lump-sum pay at retirement in November 1999 sparked the request for the audit. In January 2000, then-Sen. Anne Golden asked the inspector general to look at Hodge's case specifically and at the government's annual leave and sick leave policy in general.
Van Beverhoudt relies on his own readings of the law as well as opinions rendered by attorney Paul L. Gimenez, chief counsel to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, and attorneys Sandra Adams, assistant legal counsel, and Constance Krieger, chief counsel for the Legislature.
In the audit report, the inspector general disagrees with Attorney General Iver Stridiron, who concluded Hodge was entitled to the full $414,209. And he warns that Stridiron's opinion "opens the door" to government employees who retired without receiving lump-sum benefits to file claims for payment.
In a scathing response to a draft of the audit findings provided to Hodge, his attorney, Maria Tankenson Hodge, accuses van Beverhoudt of overstepping his authority and threatens administrative or legal action if he does not change his findings. This response is included in van Beverhoudt's final report.
Van Beverhoudt states that while Hodge and five other former judges had a pension plan different from any others (by virtue of a law passed Dec. 12, 1976, and repealed Jan. 28, 1977), their annual and sick leave payments were the same as other government employees.
Under the strictest interpretation, that means all sick leave is forfeited if not used during employment, and that an employee leaving the government may receive a payout equal to his or her salary for no more than 60 days' accrued annual leave; anything over that may go toward augmenting the time of service to qualify for retirement benefits.
The Territorial Court judges affected were those seated at the time of the short-lived law: Eileen Petersen, Antoine Joseph, Henry Feuerzeig, Raymond Finch, Irwin Silverlight and Hodge.
All but Joseph received overpayments, according to the inspector general. Besides Hodge's, the individual excess amounts cited in the audit report are $22,358, $44,134, $155,959 and $135,105. The report does not match the amounts with the judges who received them.
Hodge's combined lump sum is nearly three times as high as the next largest. That is in part due to his longer years of government service — not only on the bench but also in the legislative and executive branches. Another factor is that he left his sick leave and annual leave to accumulate. From 1973 to 1999, he used no sick days and only 277 hours (less than three weeks) of annual leave. Last year, in an interview, Hodge said he took days off as compensatory time for overtime he put in.
All of the other judges cited left the bench before Hodge.
"It can be argued that the retired chief judge should be treated equally when compared to the other judges who did receive lump-sum payments," the audit states. "However, our review of the lump-sum records maintained by the Department of Finance showed that only four of the other five retired judges were paid lump-sum amounts for the forfeited (unused) annual leave and sick leave. In addition, based on correspondence relating to the payments for these judges, the retired chief judge was a driving force behind this interpretation of the lump-sum issue, and stood to benefit from its application. Because the former commissioners of Finance did not question the chief judge's interpretation does not make it correct."
Van Beverhoudt stops short of recommending that Finance withhold payment from Hodge, indicating that that is not his role to play. However, he states that it would be "most unfortunate" if the government were to pay the full amount.
Given the split legal opinions on the issue, van Beverhoudt says, a court should decide. Hodge might take the issue to court if Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull (who first raised a red flag about the issue) does not pay the rest of the lump sum, or if Stridiron changes his opinion. The matter also could end up in court if any citizen wants to try to prevent the government from paying the money.
Stridiron wrote that Hodge is entitled to the full lump-sum payment because the special retirement law governing the six judges replaced only part of the provisions governing government employees in general — the amount of annuity. And, he said, "there is a strong equitable argument" for Hodge's entitlement since other judges received payments. "To treat Judge Hodge differently would be unfair, especially in light of his exemplary service to the people of the Virgin Islands," the attorney general said. "Judge Hodge has relied on receiving such payments in plans for repayment of debt to the government and in planning his retirement."
In her response to the audit on behalf of the judge, attorney Tankenson Hodge also spoke of his dedication, saying, "Judge Hodge worked no less than 12 hours per day and eight hours on weekends." He built up 40,000 hours in compensatory time which was valued at more than $2 million, she said.
She contends that it is illegal for van Beverhoudt to refuse to accept Stridiron's opinion, arguing that "Various provisions of law dealing with the duties of the attorney eneral, the oath and duty of the inspector general, and the unlawful exercise of office have been violated." She does not delineate the provisions. But, she says, "unless corrected in the final draft, such violations must be challenged administratively or judicially."
Concerning his findings of lump-sum overpayments to at least seven legislative employees, van Beverhoudt said the problem stems from the Legislature's practice of paying employees leaving that branch of government for all the annual leave they didn't use. Instead, he said, such employees are entitled to compensation for no more than 60 hours of accumulated leave.
The report says the seven employees received overpayments ranging from $12,725 to $66,679.
The audit report also compares existing retirement plans in the three branches and in the federal government, and finds them similar. Van Beverhoudt does not suggest a change in the local system; in face, he suggests a change might violate existing bargaining agreements and be an infringement on the employees' vested rights.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Keeping our community informed is our top priority.
If you have a news tip to share, please call or text us at 340-228-8784.

Support local + independent journalism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Unlike many news organizations, we haven't put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as accessible as we can. Our independent journalism costs time, money and hard work to keep you informed, but we do it because we believe that it matters. We know that informed communities are empowered ones. If you appreciate our reporting and want to help make our future more secure, please consider donating.