A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
With the territory’s murder rate more than 10 times the national average, it’s small wonder U.S. Justice Department officials have been concerned about federal anticrime funds that seemed to go missing in the Virgin Islands.
From 2005 to 2010, the federal government sent $18 million in grants to the V.I. Law Enforcement Planning Commission for distribution to local programs aimed at combating crime and its effects. Subsequent reports questioned whether more than $2 million of that sum was spent improperly.
For several years, local officials have been working to convince Justice that in many cases it was records, not funds, that were missing. They have resolved a number of issues but, as of last week, at least six remained in question.
LEPC is the V.I. government’s choice to act as a clearing house for DOJ grants. The commission is supposed to channel the money to worthy programs both within local government agencies such as the Police Department and the Bureau of Corrections, and to private, nonprofit organizations. Those sub-grantees are supposed to report to LEPC about how the funds are used.
When the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Justice Department published its audit of the LEPC in March 2012, it included statistics for recent homicide rates. In 2009 the Virgin Islands rate was 56 per 100,000 population, compared to the U.S. average of five per 100,000. Things looked worse in 2010; the V.I. rate was then 60 per 100,000 compared with a national average of 4.8 per 100,000.
Justice Department grants to the territory between 2005 and 2010 came from a variety of different grant programs. Most of them were routed through DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs, that is, $14.3 million of the total $18 million. The rest came through another DOJ division, the Office of Violence against Women.
All of the grants were intended to help reduce crime and/or to support crime victims.
Ironically an earlier audit of an unrelated local entity, conducted by the Virgin Islands Inspector General’s Office and published in 2010, revealed that a portion of the LEPC funds had ended up in a slush fund controlled by a top government official who was later convicted of embezzlement.
With that as background, the federal audit prompted Justice to put the Virgin Islands LEPC into a “high risk” category that has increased scrutiny and reduced actual payments. That in turn is straining both public and private agencies that rely on the grants to run specific programs.
The audit contained 25 recommendations, 21 of them concerning funds and programs associated with the Office of Justice Programs, and four of them associated with the Office of Violence against Women.
Speaking on behalf of the Office of Justice Programs, media spokeswoman Starr Stepp said last week that 16 of the 21 recommendations involving OJP grants have been cleared, and there is good reason to believe more will soon be closed.
The findings still considered open are:
– a total of $600,542 in unaccounted for grant funds from nine different grants. LEPC officials originally told auditors records were misplaced in a change-over of accounting systems at the Department of Finance;
– a total of $160,546 in administrative costs overcharged to five different grants. In each instance, LEPC exceeded the allowable percentage of grant funds for its own administrative costs. Those are typically 5 or 10 percent;
– $6,789 in expenditures that were not allowed under grant guidelines. Of that sum, $4,200 went to the Boys and Girls Club for independent consulting services, but the grant did not allow for hiring an independent contractor. The other $2,589 was spent by the V.I. Basketball Federation to send members of a USVI Science and Math Club to Florida to visit a space center and an amusement park, but the funding “was intended for a program designed to take 2,000 youths off the streets when they are most vulnerable to delinquent activities and gang violence”;
– a total of $86,127 in unsupported expenditures by five different community groups, whose awards went through the St. Croix Community Foundation: Dembaya Arts Conservatory, Conflict Resolution Organization for Peace, Cruzan Dance Company, Music in Motion, and Per Ankh Inc.;
– and $7,305 in unallowable expenditures by three different community groups, whose awards went through the St. Croix Community Foundation: Conflict Resolution Organization for Peace, Music in Motion, and Stop the Bleeding Summit.
Stepp said last week that the LEPC has provided documentation that the Office of Justice Programs believes adequately accounts for $312,827 of the above listed expenditures. The Office of Justice Programs is therefore recommending that some of the items listed be considered closed, but Stepp did not specify which ones. The final decision as to whether to close those items rests with the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear what remains unresolved concerning grants that were channeled through the Office of Violence against Women. Numerous messages left last week and Monday for officials and public information agents at the OVW were not returned.
The audit originally cited four problems involving grants coming through OVW:
– $372,434 in grant fund draw-downs that were unaccounted for;
– $472,056 in funds that have expired and should be de-obligated so they could be shifted to viable projects;
– 3,063 worth of inter-island airline tickets that went unused;
– Failure to allocate so-called STOP grant funds in required proportions to private and public sector agencies. The guidelines call for a minimum percentage going to various categories: 5 percent to the courts, 25 percent to law enforcement, 30 percent to nonprofits serving victims, 10 percent to “culturally specific community based organizations,” and 25 percent to prosecutors. The remaining 15 percent may be divided at the discretion of LEPC.
A recommendation – whether it involves OVW or OJP – may not be closed until it’s “remedied,” and according to Starr, there are several ways of doing that, “including offset, waiver, recovery of funds or the provision of supporting documents.”
In the case of the $375,813 that the Office of Justice Programs still questions, Starr said, “VI LEPC has indicated to OJP that additional information will be provided to support these costs. If VI LEPC fails to do so in a timely manner, OJP may request repayment of those funds.”
The audit was formally released three years ago and was in the works for about a year before that, so “timely” would seem to be subjective. However, Stepp said each bit of follow-up correspondence from the Office of Justice Programs to LEPC about specific audit items contains a deadline for responding.
“VI LEPC has been very responsive to our requests for information,” she added.
Franz Christian Sr., who took over as director of VI LEPC in January, has written Justice citing the territory’s progress in remedying the audit findings and asking that the federal government remove the “high risk” status.
“We are humbly requesting 100 percent release of all funding to LEPC based on good cause shown, full compliance with the audit recommendations and improved financial policies and procedures,” he wrote. “The 100 percent release of all the funding would allow us to award deserving agencies and nonprofit organizations and alleviate a backlog of fiscal year funding that is not active.”