June 28, 2005 – Does something stink in the contract to build a wastewater treatment plant on St. Croix? Senate President Lorraine Berry wants to know.
Monday afternoon, she sent requests to both the V.I. inspector general and the U.S. inspector general asking for an investigation of the contract between the government of the Virgin Islands and Veolia Water North America Operating Service.
In public meetings in April, the contract came under scrutiny as a group of activists tried to convince the Waste Management Authority to look at a system that incorporated artificial wetlands to help clean the water.
Berry said Tuesday that she still has not received answers to questions posed at those meetings. (See "Advocates of Natural Sewage Treatment Still Fighting").
Arnold van Beverhoudt, U.S. inspector general in the territory, said the opinion by Yvonne Tharpes, acting chief legal counsel for the Senate, caught his attention. Tharpes wrote, "The critical issue concerning this service contract is not the type of wastewater treatment facility that meets the standards and has the efficacy required by federal law. But rather, the contract may have an infirmity in that it may not have been procured through competitive bidding, but rather through negotiations."
Van Beverhoudt said he would be sending along the request to his boss in Washington, D.C., within the next day or two. He said this would be followed by a video conference and a decision.
He was already looking into one issue raised in the request, he added. Berry said in her request that Marc Biggs, commissioner of property and procurement, told her he had turned over files to the inspector general's office, yet the inspector general knew nothing about receiving the files.
Van Beverhoudt said there are several departments with inspector generals, and maybe the files went to the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general. He is trying to see if he can find them.
V.I. Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt, who also was sent a request for an investigation, is off island this week.
Delia Thompson, deputy inspector general for the territory, said she had looked over the request and thought Berry raised about seven issues.
She said she believed the V.I. office would launch a preliminary investigation to ascertain whether a full investigation would be needed.
However, she said nothing would happen until the V.I. inspector general returns.
She said the decision on how to proceed would be based not only on whether Berry's concerns were valid, but also on whether the inspector general had the time and the people to devote to the investigation.
Berry specifically requested that the U.S. inspector general audit contracts between the government, Veolia, and Landfill technologies.
She said Tuesday, "There is a lot of federal money involved in these projects."
The request to the V.I. inspector general is for an audit of procurements of the contracts.
Berry was careful Tuesday to say she was not calling anyone corrupt; she was just requesting an investigation.
In her letter to the U.S. inspector general, she writes, "My office has received a series of anonymous telephone calls regarding questions of the legality of the Veolia contract, and the relationship between members of the governor's close circles of advisors and the contractor who was awarded this multi-million dollar contract."
She writes, "I have very serious concerns about the perceptions in the community that fraud and corruption' are the order of the day in government, and will continue my efforts to weed out this culture' in the eyes of our citizens, and in the eyes of the world. The news media as recently as last week called us corrupt' on MSNBC, and this designating does not bode well for our struggling economy."
Although she ended her requests saying that the matter was urgent and needed immediate attention, she said Tuesday that there were no deadlines on the requests. The V.I. government does have deadlines to meet with the federal EPA to get a new wastewater treatment system up and running.
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