Though no testifiers were present at the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday, their submitted testimonies found Bill No. 33-0216 “too harsh” in terms of punishment for government employees who are convicted of some felony offenses. The committee decided to hold the bill for further amendments and discussion.
The intent of the bill was to strip public officials who are convicted of various crimes – including arson, burglary, slander or robbery – of their government retirement benefits and transfer the remaining balance of their retirement funds to the Correctional Facilities Repair and Renovation Fund or the Government Employees Retirement System’s unfunded liability.
“In short, feeding the government coffers with revoked pension benefits may have the unintended consequences of having to support the starved individual from which the pension has been stripped,” Virgin Islands Attorney General Denise George said in her submitted testimony.
Though George supported the intent of the legislation’s aim to curb public corruption, she argued that the bill as proposed appears to “disproportionately punish” both the individual convicted of the crime and the people of the Virgin Islands, who as taxpayers would ultimately be “left to support that person if or when they are no longer able to work and contribute to society.”
George posed the question: Should the bill pass would it now mean a government official would be more severely punished for the same crime as someone who is not employed by the government? “This seems patently unjust,” she said.
George wasn’t the only testifier to take issue with the bill. Administrator of the Government Employees Retirement System Austin Nibbs and Virgin Islands Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt also felt the bill needed revision.
Van Beverhoudt, who was also not present but submitted written testimony, said although the Office of the Inspector General supports the idea that someone’s retirement fund be used to satisfy any restitution, “we find it too harsh a punishment to confiscate any excess amount.”
“However, once fines, penalties and restitution amounts are satisfied, we are opposed to any excess retirement benefits being forfeited back to the government for its purposes. We are concerned about the disproportional effect this can have on someone’s excess retirement account balance when one person misappropriates $1,000 as opposed to another at $100,000,” he said.
Nibbs too asked for additional clarity on the bill and had several questions for senators, like who would be deemed responsible to notify GERS of a conviction.
One of the sponsors of the bill, Sen. Kenneth Gittens said he was disappointed to see that the testifiers had not shown up for the hearing. “I have made it abundantly clear, and was consistent with it, that I don’t mind standing alone on any issue that seeks to protect the Virgin Islands and safeguard its assets within this government.”
The senators who voted to hold the bill were Sens. Gittens, Novelle Francis Jr., Alicia Barnes, Myron Jackson, Javan James, Steven Payne Sr. and Janelle Sarauw.