Same-sex marriage, legalizing marijuana, human trafficking, crime and Hovensa issues were among the topics discussed Wednesday as the Justice Department made its case to the Legislature’s Finance Committee for its Fiscal Year 2014 $19.6 million budget defense.
Attorney General Vincent Frazer told the senators gathered at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas that the cost to clean up the aquifer under the Hovensa property on St. Croix would be huge.
“It will take a very long time – and not in any of our lifetimes,” he said.
Frazer said that the local government has a lawsuit against Hovensa for contaminating both the aquifer and the ground where the plant sits. He said that Hovensa is taking steps to contain the contamination in the aquifer but, since it views the plant as idle rather than closed, it has not begun work on a permanent cleanup.
“They have pumps running,” Frazer said.
According to the attorney general, if the government has to go down the “unfortunate road” of suing Hovensa for breach of its agreement with the territory to operate the plant, it will cost “multi-millions of dollars” because the company will fight it “tooth and nail.”
In discussing the territory’s crime problem, Bruce Marshak, who is the Justice Department’s deputy attorney general and criminal division chief on St. Croix, said the office doesn’t have the staff to prosecute misdemeanors.
“We need to focus on the bad actors,” he said.
In response to a question from Sen. Judi Buckley as to why the territory has a crime problem, he said that there are not enough trained investigators. Additionally witnesses and jurors are frightened they will be harmed, he said.
“People are intimidated,” Marshak said, noting that in two recent cases, people got threatening phone calls.
In discussing human trafficking, Frazer said his office sees evidence that it’s occurring in the territory, particularly in the areas of sex workers and labor. He said the department planned to provide training to deal with the issue.
On the day the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act that recognized only marriages between a man and a woman, Frazer hedged when he answered Sen. Clifford Graham’s question about his opinion on same-sex marriages.
“Local law restricts marriage to a man and a woman,” Frazer said.
Graham pointed out that encouraging same-sex partners to get married in the territory would enhance revenues.
On the issue of legalizing marijuana, Marshak and Frazer differed in their responses. Marshak said there were better uses for the department’s resources than prosecuting people for simple marijuana use. However, Frazer said he was strongly opposed to any decriminalization because it would contribute to the “deterioration of the community.”
In discussing the Justice Department’s budget, Frazer said the $19.6 million requested breaks down to $12.9 million from the general fund and $6.8 million in federal funds.
“We will have to manage with the allotment. No doubt we will be quite challenged,” Frazer said.
He said that 83 percent of the budget goes to personnel costs.
In addition to Committee Chairman Graham and Buckley, committee members Sens. Donald Cole and Clifford Payne attended the meeting. Sens. Terrence “Positive” Nelson and Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly sent word they were stuck on St. Croix because of the inclement weather. Noncommittee members Sens. Tregenza Roach and Kenneth Gittens also attended the meeting.