Several former clients of Gerard Castor’s Balbo Construction Company appeared in V.I. District Court on Tuesday to testify about their experiences with the company, which Castor’s defense attorney said has routinely completed jobs without receiving timely payment, and has sometimes done work for free.
A federal case against Castor and co-defendants John Woods and Julito Francis alleges that free labor and materials provided to Woods and Francis were bribes that the two men repaid by using their positions of influence to get Balbo more than $17 million in government construction contracts.
Francis is the former director of the V.I. Public Finance Authority. Woods is the co-principal of Jaredian Design Group, an architectural firm frequently awarded government contracts in the territory, including one for the Charles W. Turnbull Regional Library. Balbo also was awarded its bid for the Turnbull Library project, which the federal government alleges occurred due to a conspiracy between Francis, Woods, and Castor.
Woods is accused of accepting $10,000 worth of improvements to his driveway from Castor’s company, although some testimony at the trial has placed that value much higher. Francis allegedly accepted more than $400,000 worth of improvements to his home, including the construction of bedrooms, a pool, a poolroom and a deck. Both projects allegedly incorporated some “blue bit” rock taken from the library site, which the V.I. government paid Balbo to remove.
Castor’s attorney Darren John-Baptiste has attempted to convince a trial jury that Castor is a generous and flexible businessman who has sometimes taken a “pay me later” approach to contract work, not always to his benefit. Unpaid work done at the residences of Woods and Francis around the same time Balbo received the Turnbull Library contract fits this pattern, he argued in his opening statement, but the two things are not related.
A line-up of witnesses who have had business dealings with Balbo over the last decade said that indeed the company has completed jobs even when it knew clients would not be able to pay right away. Multiple witnesses said Castor offered them interest-free financing plans, was undemanding in collecting payments, and hustled to meet deadlines even after money for projects dried up.
Adelle Brown, director of V.I. Christian Ministries, said Balbo was contracted to complete work on a church on its property near the base of Donkey Hill. Brown said Castor and his company went out of their way to complete a job in time for a dedication despite knowing VICM would not be able to pay for the job on schedule. Brown said VICM still owes Balbo money, which the organization is paying on a monthly basis at no interest.
The Rev. Jerome Feudjio of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral also testified that Balbo did restoration work on the church as part of a 2011 job that continues to be financed by Balbo. According Feudjio, the company also did repairs at Saints Peter and Paul School as charity. He echoed Brown in saying that the only times the company has been aggressive in demanding payment for outstanding debt is when it needs the cash to make payroll.
Ermine Olive, a member of the building committee on the board of the Cavalry Baptist Academy, had a similar story of Balbo rushing to complete a job for a deadline with the knowledge that the client would have to pay in installments later on.
Not all witnesses who spoke of Balbo’s flexible payment system were involved with religious institutions. Social worker Karen Blyden and former Sen. Allie Petrus also testified that Balbo had done work on their private residences and kept working even when money for the projects was no longer flowing.
The prosecution argued that none of the instances of unpaid work presented by witnesses were comparable to the alleged deeds that brought federal charges against Castor, Francis and Woods. In the latter case, they argued, there was no attempt to work out a payment plan and no clear reason the full value of the work could not have been paid at the time of completion.
Federal attorney Justin Weitz and his team are aiming to prove to a jury that real payment actually happened illegally behind the scenes as Woods and Francis allegedly steered the government process in ways beneficial to Balbo.
Public Service Commission Director Donald Cole, who was assistant director of the Libraries, Archives and Museums Division of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources at the time of Turnbull Library’s construction, testified Tuesday that he had seen no evidence that Francis and Woods had manipulated the process.
Cole said he recalled being present at a meeting at the Public Finance Authority in 2008 during which bids for the library project were being discussed, although he was not directly involved in the decision to award Balbo the contract. By Cole’s account neither was Francis, who “opened the meeting” but left early.
Cole said he could not remember exactly who was at the meeting. He said a representative of Jaredian Design Group had been present, but he could not remember whether it was Woods or “Smith,” likely a reference to Jaredian engineer Leroy Smith.
Cole said Francis was not on the committee tasked with deciding which company to award the library contract to and he never saw him do anything to steer the committee’s decision. He characterized Francis, who he has known since childhood, as “trustworthy.”
Francis’s attorney, Robert King, will have the opportunity to call witnesses to the stand Wednesday. Attorney Treston Moore, who represents Woods, will call witnesses Thursday. Presiding Judge Juan Sanchez said if all goes smoothly the trial will close on Friday.