The V.I. Legislature voted to overturn Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s veto and eliminate pensions for the spouses of governors and lieutenant governors during the first day of a busy two-day session Thursday.
The Legislature enacted such pensions in 2012 as a late-night amendment to an omnibus bill containing an array of unrelated legislative provisions. Gov. Juan F. Luis passed away that year and, while the legislation does not mention her by name, Luis’ widow was cited during the short discussion of the measure before it was approved.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Gittens repeals that provision. During debate on the measure, some senators suggested the motivation for repealing the law enacted two years earlier was to punish or inconvenience Gov. John deJongh Jr.
Gittens vehemently denied this at the time. Instead, he said, men should provide for their widows and so the law should be repealed for that reason.
"I have stated time and time again that Mrs. Luis will not be affected," Gittens said during the hearing, assuring senators that her pension would remain in place. He also denied it was motivated by hostility to the governor.
DeJongh vetoed the measure in August, saying it "is perhaps the worst case of personal and vindictive politics. That it is also special legislation designed to carve out and maintain a benefit for only one individual, no matter how deserving that individual’s case may be, does not change the reality that this proposal’s true intent is meant to be a personal attack on me and nothing else."
Voting to enact the law over deJongh’s veto were Gittens, Sens. Craig Barshinger, Judi Buckley, Clifford Graham, Myron Jackson, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Clarence Payne and Sammuel Sanes. Voting no were Sens. Donald Cole, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Tregenza Roach and Janette Millin Young. Sen. Diane Capehart was out sick with chikungunya.
Sanes moved to override deJongh’s veto of legislation listing five roads on St. Croix and declaring they "must be … repaired by December 31." In his veto message, deJongh said the law did not say how much money is given to each project, requiring legislation to clarify. DeJongh also said neither the Legislature nor Public Works has surveyed the roads to see what is needed or what it would cost. And some of the projects the legislation diverts funding from have already begun.
The committee voted to overturn the veto with no discussion or mention of the reasons given for the veto.
The Legislature also voted to override the governor’s veto to "to name the park at the northwestern end of Veterans Drive the Williams Henry Hastie Park." Malone said the location in the original bill was incorrect, and the typographical error that led to the veto was corrected, and the park is on the southwester end of Veterans Drive.
The Legislature also approved a resolution sponsored by Gittens that "petitions and requests" deJongh to "return the sum of $490,00 plus interest at the rate of 9.5 percent taken from Act 6917 section 17 to upgrade his private residence" by Jan. 5, 2015.
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.
However, while some senators were aware of the work and the appropriation that was used for it, others were surprised at the news and looked and found the appropriating legislation silent on plans to use a portion of the funds this way. DeJongh said in 2009 that he would return the funds on the conclusion of his governorship. And in 2010 the U.S. Interior Department’s inspector general issued a report saying the work "usurped the Legislature’s authority to determine how to spend public funds" and should be returned.
The Interior Department’s report did not allege any criminality but deJongh’s political opponents have repeatedly accused the governor of being corrupt and enriching himself.
Hansen provided the sole "no" vote on the measure, which is a nonbinding resolution. Capehart was absent.