Correction- see editor’s note below.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. inducted St. Johnian Bosede Bruce as the Public Finance Authority’s new finance commissioner and executive director on Thursday; and, in his capacity as chairman, shepherded a resolution that doubles her spending power from $50,000 to $100,000, without requiring board approval.
As a public corporation separate from the government, the Authority’s mandate is to raise capital and approve contracts that serve the territory’s economic interests.
Bryan noted the multimillion-dollar pots of federal funding available to the territory and the many capital projects it is undertaking, including 221 capital projects anticipated by next year.
“(Currently) the board must be notified of anything over $50,000,” Bryan said, “but it just slows everything down. Any objection to setting the limit to $100,000?”
Keith O’Neale, who sits with the governor on the board of V.I. Next Generation Network said that company’s president Stephan Adams had requested greater spending power because of delays on some projects while seeking board approval. viNGN operates the territory’s federally-financed fiber optic network. The Authority should have parity with its subsidiary in spending authority, O’Neale said
The board moved quickly to amend the resolution, doubling the figure.
“There is no transparency issue,” Managing Attorney Kye Walker responded to a Source question. “The concern relative to the request … raised during the public portion of the Public Finance Authority meeting, was discussed and deliberated in the public portion of the meeting, and voted upon during the public portion of the meeting.”
Other than more spending authority, Bruce received the reins to all of the Authority’s accounts as her predecessors have, including but not limited to:
– The Office of Disaster Recovery’s payroll and administration accounts;
– The Banco Popular token that allows automated bank transfers on the Authority’s behalf;
– The financial accounts of Kings Alley Management, which runs St. Croix’s Kings Alley Hotel; and
– The financial accounts of Lonesome Dove Petroleum Company, which tried but failed to dodge taxes owed the IRS and now owes the V.I. government an estimated $30 million, to be collected by the Authority and used on the people’s behalf.
‘They are our attorneys. Tell them their time is up.’
When it came to defending against the claims of the Government Employees’ Retirement System, Bryan opined the years-long legal battle waged with the V.I. government as “such a waste of money.”
But asked to approve a not-to-exceed contract of $600,000-a-year for the legal services of Womble Bond Dickinson LLP to represent the territory in GERS litigation, board member Dorothy Isaacs made a case for the Authority to put a stop to the litigation, too.
“Why are we not settling this case and spending good money to dig our way out when we could be resolving the issues. Let us stop the bleeding,” said Isaacs, casting a lone vote against the contract.
In the contract’s defense, Walker noted that when the District Court awarded GERS $68 million, the U.S. Virgin Island’s counsel got the amount reduced to $25 million, saving the territory millions.
When a case has been litigated in District Court, however, and gone up to the court of appeals with no slam dunk on either side, “it’s time for the lawyers to stop and put their heads together,” Isaacs told the Source. “There are so many Virgin Islanders who depend on that retirement money for mortgages, rents and food. It is going to be devastating if the two sides don’t get to the bottom of this thing.”
A retired attorney and mediator, Isaacs came down hard on the GERS board for doing “a horrendous job of making investments with the people’s money and paying hundreds of thousands in legal fees.”
But “if our lawyers are not looking at this thing and trying to figure out how to resolve it, shame on them, too,” she said.
What to do about Limetree
The board went into executive session to consider a contract for the legal services of Squire Patton Boggs (U.S.) LLP to respond to the closure of Limetree Bay Refinery. The territory has already spent $1.4 million with the international law firm to advance its lobbying interests, according to Walker, including matters arising from the refinery’s shutdown.
“Squire Patton Boggs has provided assistance to the Government of the Virgin Islands relative to crafting a policy strategy to address the EPA’s investigation of the refinery and any efforts to re-open the refinery,” Walker elaborated in an email.
The firm also assists the government with legislation for federal funding for disaster recovery, healthcare, highways, capital improvements and infrastructure development, and a host of economic development initiatives, she wrote.
The Public Finance Authority compensates the firm at a rate of $60,000 per month.
After a broader discussion of the issues and unknowns in the Limetree matter, the session ended with no vote taken.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Stephan Adams, as CEO of viNGN, has purchasing authority for viNGN, not Keith O’Neil, who is a regular board member. Also, the PFA spent $1.4 million with Squire Patton Boggs on lobbying efforts on behalf of the government of the U.S. Virgin Islands.