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HomeNewsArchivesTrial Begins for Former Commissioners Accused of Defrauding Government

Trial Begins for Former Commissioners Accused of Defrauding Government

Feb. 11, 2008 — While prosecutors argued Monday that former commissioners Dean C. Plaskett and Marc Biggs received a series of bribes and kickbacks, defense attorneys said their employees duped them into signing off on documents they thought were legitimate.
Their trial began Monday in District Court. The men are accused of pushing through about $1.4 million in fraudulent government contracts at the beginning of this decade.
Both sides agreed on a few points: There was a conspiracy to defraud the government, they said, and it started with the formation of "sham and shell companies" headed by Elite Technical Services — a "business enterprise" started in early 2000 by Hollis Griffin, former director of the Division of Environmental Protection at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and former V.I. Fire Services employee Earl E. Brewley.
Attorneys differed, however, on the degree of involvement by Biggs, Plaskett and prominent V.I. businessman Leroy Marchena, charged with trying to cover up the scheme.
"This case is like a coin — there are two different sides," said defense attorney Gordon Rhea, representing Plaskett, in his opening statement to the jury. "We agree in many ways with the defense: There was a conspiracy, it did hurt the Virgin Islands and it did involve bribes and kickbacks. But it didn't involve Mr. Plaskett."
Rhea instead pointed to Griffin as the "kingpin" of the "entire operation," who met Plaskett while the two were living in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. When Plaskett eventually moved back to the territory and furthered his career at DPNR, Griffin capitalized on their friendship by asking for a position within the agency, and brought Atlanta businessman Esmond J. Modeste and Brent Blyden — also charged in the case — along for the ride.
Griffin "saw it as a way to expand his frauds," Rhea said, explaining that Griffin, Blyden and Modeste's history of conning government officials had long been established on the mainland. "He called Mr. Plaskett, he asked for a job — he had an engineering degree and Mr. Plaskett was impressed with him. That's when the first fox got in the hen house."
Offering his assessment of the situation, Biggs' defense attorney, Treston Moore, said "something very bad" happened in the territory after Griffin, Modeste and Blyden brought "their ideas on how to operate" to the V.I. government. Once all evidence had been presented in the case, members of the jury would have no choice but to render a verdict of not guilty, Moore concluded.
Rounding out the group, Marchena's defense attorney, Charles Grant, described Griffin, Brewley, Modeste and Blyden as the "face of organized crime," who took advantage of Marchena's close ties to former V.I. governors and officials and used him as a "warm body to cover up their crimes."
Nothing included in the 2007 federal grand jury indictment against the three defendants charges his client with "taking one red cent from anybody or giving a dime to anyone else," Grant said.
Earlier in the trial, however, prosecuting attorneys laid out claims that Biggs, Marchena and Plaskett were just as involved as their "cronies" — namely, Griffin, Modeste and Blyden, who have all pleaded guilty to charges including bribery, mail fraud and conspiring to obstruct a local and federal investigation into the Elite Technical Services scheme. (See "Grand Jury Indicts Plaskett, Biggs, Marchena for Conspiracy, Bribery.")
"The defense will simply argue that their clients knew nothing about nothing, that their trust was violated," said U.S. prosecuting attorney Armando Bonilla, during opening statements Monday. Adding that that case instead centered around "contracts, cronies and two corrupt commissioners," Bonilla asked the jury not to let the defendants "get away with their crime."
"Enough is enough," he said.
At least eight contracts, valued at around $1.4 million, were authorized and pushed through the government's procurement process by Biggs and Plaskett — aided by Griffin, Blyden, Modeste and Brewley — who in turn received "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in bribes and kickbacks, Bonilla charged.
Court documents allege that in:
— March 2000, a building permit review contract for the expansion of Hovensa's St. Croix plant was awarded to Elite Technical Services. Payments to Elite totaling $125,755 were submitted to Plaskett and Blyden by Griffin and Modeste for review. Kickbacks totaling about $80,000 were split between the group, court documents say;
— April 2001, Plaskett and Biggs, aided by Griffin, awarded a series of federally funded contracts to Elite II (another sham company) to conduct hazardous materials training seminars on St. Thomas and St. Croix. While the company submitted an $87,980 invoice to Griffin and Plaskett, a retired firefighter was paid a minimal $5,000 to conduct the workshops, Bonilla said. Money split between the group totaled about $45,000, he added;
— May 2, 2001, a Title V Air Permit Contract valued at $300,000 was awarded by Biggs and Griffin to PEC out of Atlanta; and
— Sept. 6, 2001, Elite II submitted a proposal to Biggs seeking the award of a $650,000 Coastal Zone Management contract. A few months later, Modeste and Brewley — representing Elite II — met with an evaluation committee consisting of representatives from both DPNR and Property and Procurement. In January, Biggs accepted the committee's recommendation to approve the contract.
On Monday, Bonilla also said that in 2002 Biggs canceled a contract with PEC based on the fact that the president of the company had refused to pay a third kickback. The contract was for the development of plans for a medical waste incinerator or landfill, according to court documents.
Though Moore later said Biggs had not approved the contract because it had generated concerns for members of the department's evaluation committee, Bonilla argued that that the company's president will, over the course of the trial, present evidence to the contrary.
"True public service is about honesty, integrity and self-sacrifice," Bonilla said. "This case is about greed, arrogance, abuse of power, abuse of trust. This case is about contracts, cronies and two corrupt commissioners."
While the government's witness list is expected to include Griffin and Blyden, among others, attorneys on Monday tried to explain how the local hiring and procurement processes work, turning to testimony provided by Division of Personnel Director Kenneth L. Hermon and Property and Procurement Commissioner Lynn Millin Maduro.
Property and Procurement is the certifying arm of the V.I. government, and is responsible for signing off on all contracts valued at more than $5,000, Maduro explained. However, the process by which contracts are approved is lengthy, having to go through the department's chain of command, attorney general's office and the governor for final approval, she said.
When asked by prosecuting attorneys whether the commissioner thoroughly reviews each contract before signing off on it, Maduro said, "yes and no, depending on the type of service."
"Something like janitorial services, for example, where there are three or four vendors, we probably won't screen as closely as other contracts," she said.
If the contract is for a "unique government service" where there might not be as many vendors, Maduro said, it may not go through the competitive-bidding process. Contracts executed in a state of public exigency are also not put out to bid, she said.
During Biggs' tenure as Property and Procurement commissioner, Maduro served as the department's general legal counsel. When aske
d her opinion of Biggs' performance on the job, Madura said that Biggs was "very involved" in the department's operations, and was a "responsive manager."
Jurors also heard Monday from Luther Edwards, former director of design and engineering at Hovensa. Luther testified that in 2000 the refinery was working with DPNR to secure construction permits for a proposed expansion project on St. Croix. Hovensa was looking for an independent contractor to review documents accompanying the permit application, he explained, adding that he had recommended three private contractors to Blyden, then head of DPNR's permit division.
"Initially, Mr. Blyden took the recommendations, but then he came back and said that they decided to use Elite Technical Services," Edwards said. He added that he had "no understanding" of why the contract was awarded to Elite, and "was not aware" of the company's work history or employees.
Edwards explained that Elite was able to complete the review within five days — a process which should have taken months, he added — and sent a series of invoices through Blyden totaling about $125,000 for the work performed. However, Edwards said that throughout the months-long billing process, he had no contact with any of Elite's principals and, after the project was over, was billed an additional $5,000 for another, unrelated project for which Hovensa did not solicit an independent review.
Throughout the review process, Edwards said, he felt that Elite's costs "were excessive" and that "their work was going nowhere."
The day's action wrapped before the defense was able to cross-examine Edwards, but presiding District Court Judge Curtis Gomez said attorneys can come back to the table bright and early Tuesday morning, with questioning beginning promptly at 8:45 a.m.
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