July 14, 2001 — The Senate Committee of the Whole session Friday evening to delve deeper into acting Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamins tenure as head of a local union ended anti-climactically when many union officials didn't show up.
The Rules Committee in May voted to forward Benjamins nomination to the full Senate with an unfavorable recommendation. But Sen. Adelbert Bryan requested that before the nomination went to the Senate, a Committee of the Whole meeting be called to investigate the allegations against Benjamin, former president of the St. Croix chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. The allegations included misrepresentation and misappropriation of teachers' union funds and failure to represent AFT members properly in negotiations with the Turnbull administration.
Benjamin showed up for Fridays session, but others who were invited — including Innocencio Garcia, the AFTs past treasurer; Maria Heywood, AFT first vice president; and Rhonda Vanterpool, recording secretary — didnt attend.
That left Bryan to question Benjamin, who headed the union for about 20 years, about AFT check-writing procedures and alleged break-ins at the AFTs headquarters in which documents were stolen or destroyed. Benjamin's recollection of the break-ins was spotty and he said he never kept records of AFT checks that he signed.
Bryan, without other witnesses to question, was unable to garner much information.
"Mr. Benjamin cant answer all the questions," Bryan said. "And he doesnt have an obligation to tell the whole story."
Meanwhile, Bryan blasted the administration of the St. Croix AFT for not providing more for its members, particularly when it has had an operating budget of $200,000-plus for the last 10 years. He noted that a 1-acre plot purchased by the AFT about a decade ago in Estate Slob to build a headquarters remains undeveloped.
Benjamin also took blows from Sen. Norma Pickard Samuel for traveling off-island too frequently and not acting quickly on issues within the Labor Department. She said programs that involve federal funding are in jeopardy and Benjamin has yet to discuss the problems with Gov. Charles Turnbull.
"I was once 100 percent behind Mr. Benjamin," she said. "The more I see, the more I believe Mr. Benjamin isnt taking his role as the head of the Department of Labor seriously."
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, a former teacher and member of the AFT, said he would vote for Benjamin's confirmation when the Senate meets July 17. He said the Committee of the Whole session didnt prove that Benjamin was involved in any wrongdoing.
"If the witnesses dont come forward, then the person remains innocent," he said.
Bryan has called on two senators to recuse themselves for the vote on Benjamins nomination. He noted that Sen. Vargrave Richards served as a vice president of the St. Croix AFT under Benjamin and Jn Baptistes position in the St. Croix chapter.