Senators grilled acting Property and Procurement Commissioner Randolph Bennett on his decision to lease a $2,800 a month apartment at taxpayer expense for Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter, during Bennett’s nomination hearing Monday.
The news and Senate consternation come on the heels of a scandal over the West Indian Co. Ltd.’s leasing a $12,000 per month apartment for Gov. Kenneth Mapp. (See Related Links below)
Senate President Neville James objected to the arrangement last week during a Committee of the Whole hearing on the governor’s residence. James complained that the administration was not following the law, comparing it to controversy over taxpayer funds used on security at former Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s private home, which James vigorously objected to.
During Monday’s Rules and Judiciary Committee meeting, James told Bennett to relay a message to the Mapp administration to work with the Legislature going forward and not try to spend money without authorization.
Many committee members echoed James’ concerns, while also saying they feel Bennett is qualified and that they intend to support his nomination.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens, chairman of the Rules Committee, asked Bennett where in the V.I. Code he had authorization to rent an apartment for the lieutenant governor.
Bennett said the Revised Organic Act of 1954 does not mention housing for the lieutenant governor because there was no lieutenant governor at the time "but the precedent was set" by the establishment of provisions to house the governor. He also emphasized that the funding came from the existing moneys for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor and said that such an expense seemed entirely normal to him from his past experience in the federal government.
Gittens disagreed there was any legal precedent set, saying, "There is nowhere that speaks to providing housing or security for the lieutenant governor."
When asked, Bennett told Gittens that he got legal advice supporting the decision from then-Acting Attorney General Terri Griffith.
Senators also pressed Bennett on whether or not he had a master’s degree in counseling from Liberty University in Virginia. Bennett said he had completed the 60 credits required, but was repeatedly ambiguous when asked if he had the degree. According to the commissioner nominee, he had completed the 60 credit requirement necessary for him to have received a certificate establishing the fact of his degree; however, because he did not participle in a walking ceremony, he has no documentation or certificate on hand showing such degree.
"Did you pay the fees?" Gittens asked.
"That is part of the problem. I have not done so," Bennett said.
Gittens told Bennett his vote in favor would be “conditional" and asked him to provide documentation about the degree.
Born on St. Kitts, Bennett moved to St. Thomas as a child and is a 1985 Ivanna Eudora Kean High School graduate.
He served 22 years in the military. Before taking this position, he was office director for residential design and cultural heritage at the U. S. Department of State. Bennett holds degrees from Troy State University, the University of Maryland University College and has a master’s degree pending from Liberty University. He has completed the U.S. Army Warrant Officer Senior Staff Course at the Army Management Staff College.
At the State Department Bennett’s office managed 395 U.S. ambassadors’ and other residences in 180 countries around the world. He was the highest ranking Virgin Islander in the Department of State.
The committee voted without opposition to send his nomination for a final vote before the full Senate.
Cedric Armstrong’s nomination to serve on the V.I. Taxicab Commission and Col. Deborah Howell’s nomination for V.I. National Guard Adjutant General were also sent on without opposition Monday.
Best known as the owner and operator of Armstrong’s Ice Cream on St. Croix, Armstrong was a police officer and served on the V.I. Narcotics Strike Force from 1984 to 1990.
Born on St. Thomas, Howell received her bachelor’s degree from UVI, then a master’s degree in business administration from Central Michigan University.
She joined the Army straight out of high school in 1978 and came back to the territory in 1980. She was commissioned by the former V.I. Military Academy, where she attended Officer Candidate School.
Howell served full time in the V.I. National Guard from 1983 until her retirement in 2010. She served as chief of staff for the guard from 2001 to 2007.
In 2000, she attended War College on a fellowship at the University of Texas.
If approved by the National Guard and V.I. Legislature, Howell will be promoted to the rank of brigadier general.