Syed Gilani, owner of BIZVI, Jerris Brown the former Director of the Virgin Island Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and Gregory Christian former Project Manager at the BMV have all been arrested on multiple charges including misuse of federal funds, Attorney General Claude Walker announced at a press conference Monday.
All three men had previously been attached to install equipment at the BMV to allow the Virgin Islands to implement Real ID.
RealID was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005, the Real ID Act sets up standards for the issuance of drivers licenses and identification cards to safeguard against fraud and identity theft.
The final rules were put in place in 2008, with a 2009 initial deadline. The Virgin Islands and most states missed the deadline and there have been several extensions.
In September of 2008, Brown requested and got about $2.3 million from the U.S Department of Homeland Security to implement Real ID in the Virgin Island. Brown and Christian then later certified and paid Gilani for incomplete and undocumented work.
“We still don’t have Real ID,” Walker said at the press conference Monday.
The Virgin Islands Department of Justice is currently investigating the use of the $2 million. “We owe the federal government an explanation,” Walker said. “There needs to be accountability.”
Browne, Christian and Gilani were all taken into custody June 15, Walker said. Each of the men faces one count each of obtaining money by false pretense, conversion of government property, embezzlement by public officer, filing false instruments, falsification of public accounts, fraudulent claims upon the government, false certificate by public officers and criminally influenced and corrupt organizations conspiracy.
According to Walker, federal agents apprehended Gilani in Massachusetts, where he awaits extradition. Browne and Christian were arrested on St. Croix. Monday morning, Browne and Christian appeared before Superior Court Judge Douglas Brady for their advice-of-rights hearing. Brady found there was sufficient evidence to move forward on the charges and released both men on their own recognizances.
“First, we inform the public that under the U.S. Constitution, the Revised Organic Act of 1954, and Virgin Islands law, a defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Walker said.
The Justice Department asserts the three men allegedly all acted in concert to defraud the Virgin Islands government of more than $2 million of federal funds appropriated for the BMV’s REAL/ID program “through a pattern of fraud, deception and trickery,” according to Walker.
The affidavit filed in this matter alleges that the defendants were engaged in a pattern of criminal activity from 2008 to 2011.
In 2011, the territory contracted BIZVI to set up RealID. BIZVI was a St. Thomas-based company that provides network programming, website design and custom programming, among other services to both government agencies and private businesses.
Over the course of that period, the defendants acquired the funds under the guise that they were to be used for the BMV’s REAL ID program.
“In September of 2008, former BMV Director Jerris Browne submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security requesting funding for the REAL/ID program for the U.S. Virgin Islands and that application was approved for federal funding,” Walker said. “During the fiscal years of 2008 through 2011, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security awarded the Virgin Islands grand funding in excess of $2 million to assist the Bureau of Motor Vehicles with bringing the Virgin Islands into compliance with the mandate of the REAL/ID program.”
The affidavit also alleges that Browne then contracted with several businesses, all owned by Gilani, to manipulate the bidding process by making it appear that these companies were independent companies engaged in competitive bidding as required by law, Walker said.
The government alleges that Browne and Christian certified that work was performed by Gilani’s companies and actually paid him, but the work was not done. In other instances, items were purchased for BMV through Gilani, but he did not furnish the BMV with any of the goods, Walker said.
The alleged malfeasance did not come to light until 2015 when the current BMV Director Lawrence Olive discovered that the BMV did not have the functional software application to carry out the mandates of the REAL/ID program, Walker said.
“We did an extensive investigation based in part on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s seeking answers from the Virgin Islands as to what happened to the over $2 million that they gave us in 2008-2011 to implement REA/ID,” AG Walker said. “We have no REAL ID; there is no system.”
The RealID program has been repeatedly delayed. Three years ago, Browne projected compliance by February 2014. But in February 2015, the BMV’s new director, Olive, told the V.I. Legislature the system was not ready and there was a dispute with BIZVI over some of the final details.
Later in 2015, Olive told the Legislature that bringing the system into compliance with the Real ID Act was a major goal for 2016. In May of 2017, Olive testified in senate hearings that the system is nearly ready.
The government ended the contract with BIZVI and opened an investigation, which led to a defamation lawsuit against the BMV by BIZVI President and Chief Executive Officer Syed Gilani. Olive countersued. Those suits were later dropped but the criminal investigation continued, leading to the recent arrests and charges.
At the end of 2015, 27 states had filed extensions to comply with the Real ID Act, and the USVI, Guam and the Northern Marianas had extensions under review and faced a Jan. 10, 2016, deadline. Since then, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that all states and territories were getting a two-year extension.
Until Jan. 22, 2018, residents of all states will still be able to use a state-issued drivers license or identification card for domestic air travel, Johnson said in a statement in January. Passengers can also continue to use any of the various other forms of identification accepted by TSA, such as a passport or passport card, global entry card, U.S. military ID, airline or airport-issued ID, and federally recognized tribal-issued photo ID.