Government Should Be Reimbursed for Security Fence, Report Finds

Government funds spent on security at Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s private residence "usurped the Legislature’s authority to determine how to spend public funds" and should be returned, the U.S. Interior Department’s inspector general’s office determined in a recent report.
When deJongh took office in 2007 and decided to live at his private residence, rather than the official residence set aside in Estate Catherineberg, Public Works spent $490,000 on a security system, fencing, a guard house and driveway and parking changes.
Before expending the money, Public Works asked the V.I. attorney general’s office for a legal opinion on whether public funds could be used for security work at the governor’s private residence. The acting attorney general concluded spending public funds is permissible so long as a public purpose is served and is the primary reason for the expense.
With this opinion in hand, along with recommendations from deJongh’s security advisors, the executive branch began the normal process for funding and contracting, issuing public requests for proposals in the territory’s newspapers and taking bids, after which the work was completed.
The topic of the security expenditures was resurrected last summer when Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, who ran against deJongh in the 2006 gubernatorial race, said on the Senate floor that the deJonghs had spent millions of public dollars to renovate their private residence for their personal benefit.
The documents Donastorg released to support those claims showed the aforementioned half-million for security work upgrades rather than the millions of dollars in personal home renovations initially alleged.
Around the same time, Donastorg approached the Interior Department and requested an inspection into the fence expenditure. The inspection was approved on a fast-track basis after consultation between local Interior officials and the Washington headquarters, said Mike Ware, local field office supervisor for Interior’s inspector general’s office on Monday. The inspection was conducted over a three-month period from mid-August to mid-November of 2009, Ware said.
Last November, deJongh gave a radio address on the controversy, saying the process was public and open while, however, acknowledging it might have been handled better.
"With 20-20 hindsight, some things might have been done differently, but I was, of course, trying to put together a government in those early months, and I was never focused on the details of what was being done," he said. "At the end of my term of office, whatever security enhancements were placed on my property that can be removed, will be removed and remain the property of the Government of the Virgin Islands. Whatever is left on my property, I will pay for."
Since the beginning of the inspection, the V.I. Legislature has twice held hearings on the issue, both before and after deJongh’s promise to reimburse the government for any permanent improvements to his residence.
The inspection report, issued Jan. 19, recommends deJongh fulfill his pledge of last November.
Specifically, the report recommends the money spent on security work "be returned and used as intended" and that officials "ensure that an appropriate security-vulnerability assessment is made in the event that any appropriation for security improvements at a governor’s private residence is considered."
While acknowledging previous sitting V.I. governors have had some level of security at their private residences, the report concludes there should have been a security assessment with detailed recommendations beforehand, and that the Legislature should have specified that use in an appropriation.
According to the report, the legislative appropriation used for the security work was meant for work on public roads.
Looking into the legal background for spending money in this fashion, the report found five salient court cases. Of those, three found that while expenditures resulting in both a public good and some personal benefit are permissible, the expenditure of public funds must be specifically legislated.
"What is for the public good or what are public purposes for which appropriations must be made are questions which the Legislature must in the first instance decide," the report says, quoting one of those court cases.
When interviewed Monday, Donastorg said he feels vindicated but still wants the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and issue criminal charges. He also wants the V.I. Legislature to act more on the issue.
"We want to make sure the people of the Virgin Islands recognize no one is exempt from the consequences of breaking the laws," he said.
Asked whether work done by the V.I. government for security at the private homes of the previous two governors was equally improper, Donastorg said no.
"That work was done by Public Works employees with miscellaneous funds, while this was done by contractors," he said. "And that was for a guard booth, not a guard house." These differences, he said, made the work done in prior administrations proper, while this work was criminal.
However, Donastorg failed to explain the legal basis for his conclusion during Monday’s interview, saying only that the cases were "very different."
Ware could not shed any light on the distinctions Donastorg raised, saying the inspection and report addressed only the question of whether the funds were spent correctly and no more.
The report, dated Jan. 19, asks deJongh for a response to its recommendations by Feb. 16.
"We actually have a great working relationship with this governor and are far from antagonistic with him," Ware said Monday. "As far as our audits and investigations are concerned he has been our biggest advocate, so we anticipate a positive response."
Finally, while Donastorg said "there is a strong possibility" he will run for governor against deJongh this fall, he said the decision is "in the hands of an exploratory committee."

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