Nov. 1, 2002 – – A former administration official broke his silence this week and charged Gov. Charles Turnbull with fostering nepotism, padding his executive staff, advocating the misuse of government funds and pressuring the official to perjure himself.
The charges came less than a week before the election in what has been a particularly acrimonious gubernatorial race. They were immediately dismissed as sour grapes by an administrative spokesman, but he did not deny any of the incidents.
Turnbull appointed Dr. Wilbur Callender his Health commissioner when he took office in January 1999. Callender served in the post for 16 months until the governor dismissed him May 1, 2000.
"I didn't get fired for insubordination," Callender said in an exclusive interview Thursday. "I got fired for sticking up for my rights and not being a fool."
Callender had clashed with Turnbull's predecessor, former Gov. Roy L. Schneider, and he said that predisposed him to want to "make Charles Turnbull look good." But problems started almost immediately.
One of the early clashes was over Turnbull's decision to give his sister, Mavis Richards, a generous pay increase. She was a licensed practical nurse earning $31,000 a year in 1998. Turnbull created a new position "patient and staff advocate" especially for her, with a salary of $51,000. That was later increased to $70,000.
"He called me in and ordered me to generate a NOPA (Notice of Personnel Action) and all the paperwork" necessary for Richards' pay increase, Callender said.
James O'Bryan, special assistant to Turnbull and Government House spokesman, said Richards deserved an increase in pay because she is a 40-year veteran of the Health Department.
"There are a lot of people who have gotten substantial raises in the last two to three years," O'Bryan said.
What further galled Callender was that Richards' hefty salary was coming out of the Health Department budget, while her job turned into accompanying the governor on trips and at public functions, service Callender believes should be reflected in the Government House budget.
Likewise, the Health Department's public relations director, Lee Vanterpool, was "loaned" to Government House to help with the inaugural festivities. Four years later, he is still working on the Hill in public relations, and he is still being paid out of the Health budget.
O'Bryan defended the practice of loaning workers from a department to the governor's personal administrative staff.
"It's not unprecedented," he said. "It's common practice" in the Virgin Islands and elsewhere. In fact, he said, five V.I. departments have people on their payrolls who are actually assigned to Government House: Justice, Public Works, Property and Procurement, and Housing, Parks and Recreation, as well as Health.
While the practice does not increase the bottom line number of government employees, it does obscure the actual cost of the executive office of the governor.
On one occasion, Callender said, the governor pressed him to authorize the expenditure of $150,000 in federal funds to pay for specialized medical treatment in an off-island facility for an infant who was related to one of Turnbull's old political associates. Callender refused. Later the facility lowered its demand for upfront payment, and the family came up with enough money for the necessary care.
Since the idea wasn't carried out, O'Bryan argued, no harm was done. The federal funds weren't used, so "then it's not an issue," he said. He characterized the incident as one in which some bad ideas were floated but then abandoned.
Callender said it is not the only time he was asked to authorize something he thought was wrong. Early in the administration, numerous government employees most considered political appointees by Schneider were summarily dismissed. The mass firing triggered a suit, and Callender found himself in the thick of it. To counter the charge of political motivation in the employment action, administration representatives told the then-commissioner that he should testify in court that he was the one who had fired the director of environmental health. Again, Callender refused.
"I was told I was not a team player," he said.
Nor was he a team player when he refused to sign a document aimed at legitimizing some "financial transactions." They had taken place under the previous commissioner, but Callender was asked to certify them. A document was prepared for his signature, but he sent it to his lawyer for review and, he says, she advised him not to sign.
Things came to a head in the spring of 2000. Callender had clashed with Turnbull's deputy chief of staff who he felt was intruding on Health Department matters. Also he was getting little support for his efforts to reinstate an eight-hour workday on Charles Harwood Complex employees. They had become used to being sent home early when the complex was in poor condition, but it had had some repair. Government House, he charged, had become the informal "complaint department" for disgruntled Health employees and sided with them instead of backing the commissioner.
He was summoned to Government House and fired. It was not, Callender maintains, for failing to do his job, but rather for failing to play the game.
"These issues are old. To rehash them now doesn't serve any purpose," O'Bryan said. "As far as we're concerned the matter is closed."
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