Broadband Project in the Legislature’s Hot Seat

While no one disagreed with the need for expanded broadband capability under the V.I. Next Generation Network, senators at Wednesday’s meeting of the Economic Development, Technology and Agriculture Committee meeting threw out words like “hogwash,” “conflict of interest” and “disappointed” as they grilled Public Finance Authority Director Angel Dawson.

“The Next Generation Network is shaping up to be a real embarrassment for the Virgin Islands,” said Sen. Craig Barshinger, a noncommittee member who showed up in the closing seconds of the meeting.

Dawson, who as the territory’s Finance Commissioner serves by law as director of the Public Finance Authority and a board member, was the only person to testify. Next Generation Network President Julito Francis and Alfred Boschulte, who chairs the network’s Business Operation Committee, both sent excuses related to family medical emergencies.

The Next Generation Network is a wholly owned subsidiary of the territory’s Public Finance Authority set up to improve the territory’s broadband capability. This would increase economic opportunities in the territory.

Dawson numerous times said he couldn’t answer questions posed by the senators because he was not that familiar with the Next Generation Network operations. He said they would have to be answered by Francis and Boschulte.

“It doesn’t look good when you come here and don’t know what’s going on with your subsidiary,” Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said.

Sen. Janette Millin Young successfully sponsored a motion to subpoena both Francis and Boschulte as well as a raft of documents related to a federal audit. However, Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, who was off the floor when the first vote was taken, sponsored a subsequent motion rescinding the first and calling for a subpoena of the documents only within seven working days.

Sen. Louis P. Hill had said that it didn’t seem necessary to subpoena Francis and Boschulte since both had valid reasons for not attending.

“We’re being insensitive,” he said, referring to the medical emergencies.

Hill also was absent when the first vote was taken.

Dawson said he didn’t bring the documents because they contain proprietary information.

“It should not be widely circulated,” he said.

Malone announced a meeting on Nov. 2 to further discuss the Next Generation Network.

Malone called the meeting as part of the Legislature’s oversight of the Next Generation Network program. The Legislature approved up to $38 million in bond capability as its match to federal grant money.

In August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suspended the territory’s use of federal funds as a result of an audit of the Next Generation Network by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration team. Both NOAA and NTIA are arms of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The audit cited program, financial and grant management deficiencies as the reason.

Subsequently, the Legislature approved an amendment to a bill that called for a halt in spending the territory’s matching funds except where it was necessary to meet NOAA’s Corrective Action Plan. Gov. John deJongh Jr. vetoed that bill.

As a result of that audit, deJongh removed financial responsibility for the Next Generation Network from Francis, who remains as its president and is dealing with long-range plans. The governor then named a Business Operation Committee to oversee finances until the Corrective Action Plan is complete.

Francis had been the PFA’s director of finance and administration until he took over as head of the Next Generation Network. Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson pointed out that Francis went from applying for the federal grants to set up the Next Generation Network to heading it up.

“That says conflict of interest,” Nelson said.

Nelson wanted to know if Francis’s reduced responsibilities meant a reduction in his $170,000 salary, but Dawson said he didn’t know.

In addition to Barshinger, Hansen, Hill, Malone, Nelson, and Young, noncommittee member Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly attended the meeting. Committee members Sen. Neville James and Sen. Patrick Simeon Sprauve were not at the meeting.

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