Jan. 27, 2003 – The first Senate meetings since the formal opening of the 25th Legislature on Jan. 13 take place Tuesday morning on St. Thomas in an unusual lineup — back-to-back sessions of two different entities examining the same subject.
At 9 a.m. the Committee of the Whole is to convene to take testimony from executive branch officials on the government's financial status. Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull; Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget; Louis M. Willis, director of the Internal Revenue Bureau, have been invited to appear.
An hour later, the Finance Committee is to meet for the same purpose. Again, Turnbull, Mills and Willis have been asked to testify. So, too, have a number of other people: Roy Martin, tax assessor; Frank Schulterbrandt, Economic Development Authority chief executive officer; Kenneth Mapp, Public Finance Authority director of finance and administration; Darlan Brin, Port Authority executive director; Alberto Bruno Vega, Water and Power Authority executive director; Edward E. Thomas Sr., president of The West Indian Co.; Anthony D. Cruz, partner in KPMG, the government's auditor; and Tarance Draft, U.S. Customs Service area port director.
The Legislature's official calendar notes without elaboration that the Committee of the Whole meeting is "by petition." The two sessions on the same subject have come about because of a vote taken at the opening session and second thoughts by the Senate majority afterward.
At the session, a motion by Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards to call all the government's chief fiscal officers to testify about the territory's finances at a Committee of the Whole meeting on Jan. 21 passed on a 9-6 vote.
Senate President David Jones was not happy about the motion and was even less pleased about four of his majority members — Sens. Lorraine Berry, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Shawn-Michael Malone and Luther Renee — voting for it. "One week to have them come here and tell us they are not ready?" Jones said of the executive branch officials. "Come on."
Jones commented later that same day that it was "unprecedented" for a freshman senator to get such a measure passed in an opening session and that he was "disappointed that my members broke ranks on the motion." He also said the majority caucus was "working on that matter."
However, the meeting was placed on the Senate calendar, for Jan. 21 — last Tuesday. But then Gov. Charles W. Turnbull requested a postponement. He said Finance Commissioner Turnbull would not be available to testify on the 21st because she already was scheduled to testify in District Court on that date in connection with a challenge to the territory's manner of assessing property values for tax purposes. Jones then rescheduled the hearing for a week later.
Bernice Turnbull's testimony is considered key in the Senate's delving into government finances, because she told the members of the incoming 25th Legislature at an orientation on Dec. 12 that the government was facing a fiscal "crisis." Testifying in the District Court trial on Jan. 9, she said her earlier comments had been taken out of context by the news media.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 17, Donastorg, new chair of the Finance Committee, announced an agenda for a meeting of his committee on the same day, on the same subject, an hour later.
Richards, a minority senator, charged in a letter to Jones dated Jan. 23 that it was "clear that the majority members had made a decision immediately following the Jan. 13 session that the motion to conduct a Committee of the Whole meeting will not see the light of day." He further accused the majority of "a clear conspiracy by the majority to both withhold [information] and mislead the non-majority members."
Further, Richards wrote Jones: "The fact that the majority intends to send the agenda for the Committee of the Whole meeting to the Committee on Finance removes any opportunity for non-committee members to make motions or take actions we deem in the best interest of our constituency."
What the majority caucus decided to do was to let Richards have his hearing but let Donastorg take over after the first hour. In another release issued on Friday, Donastorg went to lengths to show that non-majority senators are not being excluded. The opening sentence stated that he had "invited all members of the 25th Legislature to participate" in the meeting.
Without mentioning the 9 a.m. meeting or Richards' charges, the release cited Donastorg as saying that the hearings are being held before his committee "in order to better facilitate the financial review process." And again, it stated that "all senators had been invited to participate and would be granted equal consideration during this important meeting."
Donastorg also made a point of defending his hearing: "These matters rightfully belong under the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee. I simply don't understand why some of my colleagues are more concerned about the venue rather than the many crucial matters at hand."
There were indications, however, that participation would be regulated. "I have asked each of my colleagues to submit questions and requests for information prior to Tuesday's meeting in order to ensure we proceed in the most productive manner possible," Donastorg said in the release.
As far as the topics to be covered, Donastorg said he wants answers to "how the administration can say we have a surplus when we are $1 billion in debt."
The governor in his State of the Territory speech on Jan. 13 stated: "The Fiscal Year 2001 financial audit, issued this past week, shows that the government actually ended the year with a General Fund surplus of some $35 million."
In another release issued on Monday, Donastorg said he had requested specific information from those invited to testify on Tuesday, including data from executive branch officials on "more than 50 different government funds." VIPA, WAPA and WICO officials have been asked to outline their contributions to the General Fund, he said. And, referring to KPMG, the release stated that "for what may be the first time, the private firm auditing the government's finances has been invited to testify."
The release also stated that the public is invited to the session. "Anyone who wants to hear more about what is really transpiring should listen in," Donastorg said.
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