Lawmakers on Thursday held in committee the renomination of Laurel Hewitt-Sewer, cousin of Gov. Kenneth Mapp, to the governing board of the Virgin Islands Port Authority after raising concerns over conflict of interest and the agency’s under-performance.
All members of the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee — save one — voted in favor of Sen. Sammuel Sanes’ (D-STX) motion to table Hewitt-Sewer’s nomination. Sens. Jean Forde (D-STT), Janette Millin-Young (D-STT), Novelle Francis (D-STX), Positive T.A. Nelson (ICM-STX), Myron Jackson (D-STT) and Sanes voted to hold the nomination; Sen. Janelle Sarauw (I-STT) voted against the motion.
Lawmakers brought up the fact that Hewitt-Sewer is directly related not only to Gov. Mapp, but also VIPA Director David Mapp, the governor’s brother. The current VIPA director assumed his role when his predecessor, Carlton Dowe, was terminated by the board in 2016. Hewitt-Sewer cast one of the five yes votes that resulted in Dowe’s termination and Mapp’s installment.
“It’s not always friendly, friendly, family stuff,” said Hewitt-Sewer, who currently serves as chairman of the VIPA board. “I do what is necessary when the time comes. It’s not always about family.”
When asked if she was satisfied with Mapp’s performance at the helm of VIPA, Hewitt-Sewer said she would rather not answer the question in that setting. She did say Mapp has 30 years of experience at the agency — something that Nelson said did not automatically translate as “30 good years” — and relayed some of VIPA’s accomplishments during his tenure.
Mapp is scheduled to exit the agency at the end of January 2019. The board will discuss the search for his replacement at their October meeting, according to Hewitt-Sewer.
Senators also raised the issue of firing of key Port Authority officials, something that Millin-Young said eliminated much of the agency’s institutional knowledge and demoralized the remaining staff. Hewitt-Sewer responded she was not in a position to address the personnel terminations, but refuted that VIPA staff are demoralized.
“I think that the staff understand what happened, and I think that they understand exactly the need for change in the Port Authority,” said Hewitt-Sewer. “You have disgruntled people, they’re going to come forward and complain about everything, and I know that my nomination would be one of those because I serve on the board.”
Nelson flatly accused David Mapp of under-performing, adding he was “grossly dissatisfied” with the the airports and seaports. Jackson also expressed dissatisfaction in the performance of the territory’s ports, especially the “day-to-day crisis at the Cyril King Airport,” which is experiencing major air-conditioning issues and operating on large industrial fans for ventilation.
Forde, meanwhile, raised the issue of a lawsuit levied personally against Hewitt-Sewer and other members of the Port Authority board in connection with actions they took in their capacity as board members, the details of which were not discussed in Thursday’s hearing. Board members, including Sewer, voted to have the agency foot the legal bills of the law firm hired to represent the board collectively. When asked by Forde if she saw this as a conflict of interest, Hewitt-Sewer said no.
The Senate Rules and Judiciary also voted unanimously to advance the nomination of Jay T. Watson to the Virgin Islands Horse Racing Commission. Watson has 40 years of experience in the horse racing industry and advocated boosted horse racing revenues as part of the territory’s gross domestic product.
Committee members also advanced the nomination of St. Thomas veterinarian Laura Palminteri — who owns Canines, Cats and Critters — to the Horse Racing Commission. Millin Young, Forde and Francis voted against her nomination after raising conflict of interest issues that Palminteri herself disclosed. Palminteri is the only equine veterinarian in the territory, and her actions as board member have the potential to benefit her business.
The committee also:
-voted unanimously to advance veteran trial lawyer Dorothy Isaac’s nomination to the Public Finance Authority Board for St. Thomas and St. John to the full senate.
-voted unanimously to advance the nomination of Ralf Hartwell Boulon, Jr. to the V.I. Coastal Zone Commission for the St. Thomas-St. John district.
-voted unanimously to advance the nomination of David Lee Silverman to the V.I. Coastal Zone Commission for the St. Thomas-St. John district.