Aug.28, 2003 – Allegations of high-level fraud within the Public Works Department made public recently have prompted Sen. Usie Richards to seek an investigation into the matter by the Senate Government Operations Committee — but without much success.
In a letter dated Aug. 20, he urged Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the committee chair, to conduct such an investigation. But Malone, on the advice of legal experts, isn't willing to go that far, according to an aide.
Meanwhile, the attorney general says his office hasn't been asked to investigate, and the territory's inspector general says he's not at liberty to say what, if anything, his office is doing about the matter.
The fraud allegations came to public attention on Aug. 5 during the Public Works Department's Fiscal Year 2004 budget hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. (See "DPW fraud charges aired at budget hearing".)
At that hearing, Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, a Finance Committee member, disclosed two letters alluding to corruption within the department.
One letter was dated March 26 and written by DPWs deputy commissioner for operations, Randy Germain, to V.I. Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt. In that letter, Germain said he had learned from confidential sources that a high-level Public Works official had "received and continues to receive monies for services rendered" and that "DPW government resources have been engaged in illegal activities working on private properties."
Germain urged the inspector general to investigate the matter.
Van Beverhoudt said this week that he has Germain's letter but that he cannot comment on whether his office is conducting or will conduct an investigation.
The other letter Jn Baptiste had was from Robert Moorehead, Public Works assistant commissioner. Dated March 24, it cited rumors "concerning the illegal use of DPW government resources to work on private properties." It said that "some investigations may have been launched into the subject areas." At the Senate budget hearing, Moorehead stated that he had faxed the letter to his boss, Commissioner Wayne Callwood; Callwood said he had not gotten it.
Malone replied on Monday to Richards' Aug. 20 letter, saying that the Government Operations Committee will meet on Sept. 17 to take testimony on DPW operations. At the hearing, "All senators will have the opportunity to fully address their concerns regarding a myriad of issues as it pertains to the Department of Public Works," Malone stated.
Richards, however, said he "wasnt satisfied" with that response. He said what he wants is an "investigative hearing" to discuss the "sole matter" of the fraud allegations.
"With all due respect, it is my sincere belief that this topic is both important and far-reaching enough to warrant an investigative hearing of its own in order to avoid losing focus on the allegations of the deputy commissioner," Richards stated Wednesday in another letter to Malone.
"These allegations have left a bitter taste in the mouths of the populace and our elected and appointed officials," he wrote. "Any other forum would merely skim the lining of this issue and would not provide the necessary opportunity to expedite an investigation into corruption, kickbacks and mismanagement in the Department of Public Works."
Malone's chief of staff, Tula Malone, said on Thursday that the senator had spoken with Attorney General Iver Stridiron and a former judge concerning the allegations and that both warned him against undertaking a public investigation because of legal ramifications.
"They have said it's not the best thing to do," Tula Malone said. Further, he said, Sen. Malone intends at the Sept. 17 meeting to advise his colleagues to exercise caution in how they address the subject matter.
"It's a situation where we'd like to get down to the bottom of it, but we're not sure if the Legislature is the right place to address it," Tula Malone said.
Stridiron noted on Thursday that the V.I. Justice Department and the Office of the Inspector General have a joint Public Corruption Task Force to investigate allegations of government corruption.
But he said a formal report must be made in order for an investigation to be undertaken. "No one has brought it to our attention," the attorney general said of the allegations of fraud within Public Works. "Until it is formerly brought to our attention, we cannot conduct an investigation."
Stridiron acknowledged having advised Sen. Malone that a public hearing in the Legislature would not be the most judicious way to approach the situation. "You're not going to get anything" from such a forum, he said.
For one thing, Stridiron said, the committee could violate the constitutional rights of the accused. And for another, people with knowledge of wrongdoing might not be willing to share that knowledge openly because of the public nature of the hearing.
However, Stridiron added, the Legislature nonetheless has the authority to address the issue in a hearing.
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