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Plaskett Denies Charges, Blames Subordinates

Feb. 22, 2008 — Stepping up to the stand in District Court Thursday, former V.I. commissioner Dean C. Plaskett denied taking bribes or kickbacks on a series of fraudulent government contracts funneled through his office, and fingered Hollis Griffin and Brent Blyden — two of his former division heads — as the masterminds of the Elite Technical Services scheme.
Plaskett, former commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and former Department of Property and Procurement Commissioner Marc Biggs, are charged with demanding and accepting bribes and kickbacks in exchange for awarding approximately $1.4 million in government contracts. Charges against the two also include conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Plaskett also delved deeper into statements made Wednesday by witnesses called to the stand by prosecuting attorneys, who testified that Plaskett had, between 2003 and 2004, purchased three cars and began extensive renovations to his house on St. Croix — a project that eventually totaled upwards of $90,000. Down payments on the cars were covered by a mix of cash and checks, added Donna Kovacik, representing Caribbean Auto Mart.
Plaskett said that two of the cars — a Toyota Avalon and GMC Envoy — were for his wife. The couple traded in two of their old vehicles during the purchasing process, he added. Denying claims made by contractor Vionsi Lorenzo — who testified Wednesday that Plaskett gave him between $20,000 and $25,000 in cash for the home renovations — Plaskett said that he generally paid for the work by check. Two of the checks, which were entered into evidence by the defense on Thursday, were made out to cash.
Elite Technical Services
Last week, Griffin, former director of DPNR's Division of Environmental Protection, said that shortly after he begin working in the department in 1999, Blyden came to him and suggested that they form a sham company that could be awarded a $125,000 permit-review contract, which involved going over plans and specifications needed to secure permits for the construction of a coker plant at Hovensa's St. Croix facility.
From there, the two — with help from Atlanta businessman Esmond J. Modeste and former V.I. Fire Services employee Earl E. Brewley — birthed Elite Technical Services, a phony company that would allow the group to pocket hundreds of thousands in government funds, Griffin said.
While the on the stand, Griffin added that without knowing about the Elite scam, Plaskett — along with former Property and Procurement commissioner Marc Biggs — came to him with a separate proposal to use money within DPNR's budget to "fund companies that could be awarded contracts" in exchange for kickbacks.
Not so, Plaskett said Thursday, adding that any contracts bearing Elite's name were championed and pushed through by either Blyden or Griffin. Plaskett said he assumed that the two, as former DPNR officials, would have done their "due diligence" in making sure the company was legitimate and was on board to do the work.
Describing the process by which various documents and project proposals move up the department's chain of command, Plaskett explained that most of the paperwork — including letters, invoices and contract drafts — were first reviewed by various DPNR managers before making their way to his office for a final signature.
He explained that "as far as he knew," the contracts also made their way through the government's procurement process, coming up for consideration and approval by a joint selection committee consisting of representatives from both DPNR and Property and Procurement.
Plaskett added that after the Hovensa coker project had been awarded, a "disgruntled" employee started looking into Elite's operations, and went public with checks and other documents she described as "questionable." Plaskett said he did not hear any other substantial rumors about Elite until he was told that government and media investigations into the company's affairs and contract awards had been launched.
Plaskett said that he did not try to "hide or conceal" any of the Elite documents, or other contract awards given to companies picked out by Griffin for various other projects. Instead, DPNR staff was instructed to pull the files on Elite and other companies and hand them over to reporters or agents from the V.I. Inspector General's Office, he said.
Meanwhile, complaints had been circulating within DPNR on Elite's performance on two specific contract awards — an $80,000 energy contract for the development of energy-efficient building codes for new residential and commercial construction projects, and a $650,000 Coastal Zone Management project that would have produced an inventory of all of the territory's submerged or filled lands.
In both instances, Elite was not performing, former DPNR official Victor Somme III testified on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Plaskett testified that he did not select Elite for the two projects, and didn't influence evaluation committee members into picking the company for the contract awards. He added that DPNR, at the time, did not have the kind of in-house resources to handle the kind of "technical" work required in developing energy codes or mapping the territory's coastal zones.
"It eventually came to my attention that the staff in the CZM division had problems with the quality of Elite's work — they were late in getting things done, and everything turned in was of poor quality," Plaskett said. "I was also informed that Elite had hired subcontractors that were doing more than 50 percent of the work that Elite was contracted to do."
Plaskett said he instructed his staff members to put their complaints about Elite in writing, and eventually asked Property and Procurement to cancel the CZM contract and refund money already paid to Elite for the project. Plaskett added that subsequent meetings with Elite officials — Modeste and Brewley — were fruitless, prompting Plaskett to ask his staff to conduct an internal operation on the company and the status of their contracts. Meanwhile, reporters were also asking for copies of Elite's files, Plaskett said.
"I informed all the directors that had contact with Elite, which, at that time included Mr. Somme and Mr. Blyden," Plaskett said. "Blyden indicated that he knew nothing about any wrongdoings with Elite. I said that that the Daily News had specifically asked for the Elite file, but Mr. Blyden said that he couldn't find it. I told Mr. Blyden that he needed to reconstitute the file — meaning that he would have to go to sources that would have copies of the documents that should have been in the file, like Hovensa."
Meanwhile, Plaskett said he also sought advice from prominent V.I. businessman Leroy Marchena — who has also been charged in the Elite case with trying to cover up the scheme and thwart the joint local and federal government investigation into the company's operation. Witnesses have previously testified that Marchena and Plaskett sent Blyden to Atlanta to find a company that would backdate documents for the Hovensa permit-review project — a claim that Plaskett vehemently denied while on the stand on Thursday.
"I didn't ask anyone to backdate or create documents," Plaskett said. He explained that Marchena, as a "confidant" to former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, was a person from whom he frequently "sought advice or counsel."
"I wanted to give the governor a heads up, let him hear what I had heard and also get advice," Plaskett said.
Testifying in 2005 before a federal grand jury, Plaskett said he confided in Marchena because it was "very hard for" him as "commissioner to get a hold of the governor," and was sure that "whatever was said to Marchena would be relayed to the governor."
At the time, U.S. Attorney Anthony Jenkins pointed o
ut that as a higher-ranking government official, it would have been easy for Plaskett — who was appointed by Turnbull — to get in contact with his boss.
Once the Daily News articles came out on Elite, Plaskett said he convened a meeting with his directors to draft a press release refuting the allegations, using whatever information the staff members gave him.
"I didn't know at the time that some of the things I was writing in the response weren't true," Plaskett said. "I didn't have any personal knowledge about most of the contracts, so I relied on what was submitted by my directors."
Plaskett admitted that DPNR didn’t "do its due diligence" in reviewing Elite's documents, and should have put more steps in place to "secure that the company" was legitimate.
"So in the end, was it that you just trusted your subordinates too much?" Plaskett's defense attorney Gordon Rhea asked during questioning.
"Yes," Plaskett said. He added that after news reports on Elite had surfaced, he felt "distressed, embarrassed and humiliated," and had resolved to "get to the bottom" of the scandal.
The trial picks up again at 9 a.m. Friday.

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