Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory demanded a higher level of transparency from the V.I. government surrounding the use of $1.4 billion in pandemic-related aid issued to the territory.
Representatives from the executive branch were tasked by the Legislature to provide details on the amount of federal funds already received, obligated, and expended. But legislators were left searching for information after the Office of Management and Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal testified, providing what they felt was little statistical data or figures.
“There is a lack of transparency, this is a lot of money … We are the legislative branch of this government, and we need the information that is requested of the executive branch … The information is lacking,” Frett-Gregory said. “We’re having a high-level, a 300-elevator level conversation around these funds. We ask for details. We ask for details because there is a lack of transparency. We shouldn’t be begging, as the Legislature, for transparency.”
Frett-Gregory recessed the committee for nearly two hours so O’Neal could provide committee members with spreadsheets accounting for all the federal funds that have been received by the government.
Even with the new information, the committee remained unsatisfied that, though the Legislature now had access to the information, the public’s access was limited.
Frett-Gregory said it is her understanding that the Office of Disaster Recovery is the government entity responsible for managing the funds, and for providing information to the public about the various expenditures.
“I had the opportunity to go on the website, and the information is not so transparent,” Frett-Gregory said. She worried over what she viewed as a lack of transparency and speculated that the territory would become subject to a federal audit.
“We do know the federal government is not going to say to the Virgin Islands, ‘Hey take $1.4 billion and we are not going to come back and audit this.’ Because if we spend this money and there is not transparency and accountability, we are going to have to pay this back,” Frett-Gregory said. “And this body, the same body that is trying to get this information to ensure that we see the transparency and accountability, is the same body the government is going to have to come to, to appropriate funds to pay back the federal government.”
The Senate president was so concerned over the current management of the funds, she appealed to her committee members and recommended a new entity be responsible for the expenditure of the federal dollars – the Legislature.
“Based on the discussion we are having here today, I urge the central government to look at the NCSL website; because states aren’t managing, state legislatures are managing these funds – they are. They are asking the governor to provide them with a plan for approval, and I believe based on the information we have in front of us, we should be no different, colleagues,” Frett-Gregory said.
O’Neal said of all pandemic-related federal aid received, the government has spent over $525 million.
Additionally, the committee intended on hearing of the government’s proposed infrastructure plan in anticipation of Congress’s potential approval of President Joe Biden’s “American Jobs Plan.” O’Neal said the territory’s plan was incomplete, however, it is “expected to be completed by the time Congress makes a final determination on the funding that will be approved.”
Sens. Marvin Blyden, Samuel Carrion, Dwayne DeGraff, Novelle Francis Jr., Alma Francis-Heyliger, Donna Frett-Gregory, Kenneth Gittens, Javan James Sr., Franklin Johnson, Carla Joseph, Steven Payne Sr., Milton Potter, Janelle Sarauw, Kurt Vialet, and Genevieve Whitaker were present for the hearing.