Gov. Kenneth Mapp doubled down on his broad interpretation of his own budgetary powers this week, issuing an executive order claiming the authority to spend tax money on housing for his lieutenant governor without legislative approval.
Mapp signed an executive order [Executive Order 476-2016] on Wednesday saying the "government of the United States Virgin Islands shall provide … housing for the lieutenant governors of the Virgin Islands of the United States on the island of St. Thomas until such time as permanent, safe and secure housing is identified and acquired."
The order redirects funding from the Office of the Lieutenant Governor. It directs the Department of Property and Procurement to procure the housing for Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter.
As historic precedent, Mapp cites the fact that before 1995, the government offered housing for the lieutenant governor in government-owned historic buildings.
Potter, who has a home on St. Thomas, earns a salary of $125,000 per year.
The Revised Organic Act of 1954, the federal law that acts as a constitution for the territory, gives the V.I. Legislature power to appropriate government funds.
The government has been renting Potter an apartment for some time.
In July of 2015, during his confirmation hearing, senators grilled Property and Procurement Commissioner Randolph Bennett on his decision to lease a $2,800 a month apartment at taxpayer expense for Potter. The news of the expenditures unauthorized by the Legislature came on the heels of a scandal over the West Indian Co. Ltd.’s leasing a $12,000 per month apartment for Gov. Kenneth Mapp. (See Related Links below)
Senate President Neville James objected to the arrangement at the time, saying the administration was not following the law. James compared it to controversy over taxpayer funds used on security at former Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s private home, which James had vigorously objected to back in 2007.
During Bennett’s confirmation hearing, James told him to relay a message to the Mapp administration to work with the Legislature going forward and not try to spend money without authorization.
During that 2015 hearing, Sen. Kenneth Gittens, chairman of the Rules Committee, asked Bennett where in the V.I. Code he had authorization to rent an apartment for the lieutenant governor.
Bennett said the Revised Organic Act of 1954 does not mention housing for the lieutenant governor because there was no lieutenant governor at the time "but the precedent was set" by the territory’s past history of letting the lieutenant governor reside in government-owned historic buildings.
Bennett also emphasized that the funding came from the existing moneys for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor and said that such an expense seemed entirely normal to him from his past experience in the federal government.
At that July 2015 hearing, Bennett told Gittens that he got legal advice supporting the decision from Terri Griffith, then as acting attorney general. However, the V.I. Daily News reported in January 2016 that Mapp’s chief legal counsel, Emile Henderson III, sent an email in October 2015 advising Potter that "no government funds can be used to rent a residence for you. Such rental would be in violation of the law."
This not the first time the Mapp administration has decided to spend government money on personal expenses without legislative authorization.
Last year, after being turned down by Property and Procurement, Mapp had his chief of staff ask the government-owned WICO to pay his rent on a $14,000 per month, seven-bedroom villa on St. Thomas. WICO agreed but later rescinded the decision amid public controversy. (See Related Links below)
Mapp’s use of government accounts for shopping, travel and late-night alcohol purchases have also come under scrutiny. Former Special Assistant Attorney General Laverne Mills-Williams filed suit in 2015 alleging Mapp had her fired for being a "whistleblower" of misspending of public funds in the Mapp administration.
According to court documents, her complaint contends documents she released "verified that there had been improper spending of funds without the approval of the Legislature," among other things. The spending in question included thousands of dollars worth of alcohol purchased with a government credit card and a number of expensive restaurant bills.
Mapp disputes the spending was improper and issued a statement saying she was fired for "associating" with her own attorney in the wrongful dismissal lawsuit. (See: Mapp Fires DOJ Whistleblower For "Association" With Her Own Attorney in Related Links below)
In a related development, Potter, in his capacity as acting governor in Mapp’s absence, sent down legislation Friday requesting additional appropriations for a variety of agencies. Alongside increases for pay raises and school lunch funding, the bill includes $1.13 million in additional operating expenses for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor. [Appropriation Request]