April 16, 2002 – The Senate Finance Committee had "invited" the Water and Power Authority board chair and seven of the utility's top executives to testify Tuesday on issues including "reimbursement and payment of personal expenses, contractual agreements, short and long term financial obligations, capital projects and bonded indebtedness."
The board chair, former senator Carol Burke, appeared at the St. Croix hearing.
The WAPA executives did not, whereupon the six committee members present voted to subpoena the utility officials — Joseph R. Thomas Jr., executive director; Glenn Rothgeb, assistant executive director; Robert Vodzack, chief financial officer; Cathy Smith, legal counsel; Glenworth Byron, human resources director; John Christian, systems planning director; and Maurice Sebastian, comptroller — to appear at hearings May 7 on St. Croix and May 8 on St. Thomas.
Burke said Thomas had told her earlier that he would be unable to attend Tuesday's hearing because the lateness of the notice he received did not allow him time to prepare for testimony, but that he had sent a letter Hansen.
"Every time we invite him, from Day 1, he didn't come," Hansen said.
Burke described the overall atmosphere within WAPA since employees protested outside the utility's offices on St. Thomas while the board was meeting on March 26 as leading to "a state of unrest." She said reports of incidents have increased.
"I believe that everyone in WAPA is wasting time keeping Mr. Thomas around." Hansen said in response.
Burke said the WAPA board met on April 9 to discuss a bill for $32,000 in relocation costs Thomas had submitted for reimbursement. Burke said WAPA policy is clear that there is a $6,500 cap on relocation expenses for individuals recruited outside of the Virgin Islands and the board must be notified before excess charges can be incurred.
At the meeting, "The board expressed their confidence in Mr. Thomas as executive director," Burke told the senators. "The auditor recommended that the board ensure that the violation does not reoccur."
She said the board also reviewed the rental of a $3,000-a-month two-bedroom condominium unit at Sunterra Carambola Beach Resort and relocation charges for the chief financial officer. "It is a clear violation of WAPA policy and I don't think he [Thomas] has accepted it," said Burke. She said Thomas said the unit would be used by 15 executives at varied intervals to travel to St. Croix from St. Thomas on business. Burke noted that Thomas has said the rental represents a cost-saving measure over the hotel and restaurant prices.
Burke made it clear that she was not in agreement with the board vote just to give a warning to Thomas. "As the chair, I have to express the wishes of the board," she told the Senate committee.
"I agree with you," Hansen responded.
"Why should we pay for him to go to bed, he can't pay for his own protection?" Hansen said at another point, referring to receipts from Kmart and Plaza Extra stores on St. Croix for purchases including cat food and biscuits, hygiene products and sexual protective devices, along with china and multiple sets of linens.
Burke said Thomas was given a $30,000 advance in pay and a housing allowance which is permitted under WAPA policy. "Mr. Thomas has a spending authority only for operational expenses," she said.
"This is nothing less than corporate raiding," Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel said. "We don't need to look at CNN. We have our own Enron."
The other WAPA governing board members are William Lomax, vice chair; Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Andrew Rutnik, secretary; Claude Molloy; Alphonso Franklin; Housing Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ira Hobson; G. Luz James; and Attorney General Iver Stridiron. Another non-government member, J. Arthur Downing, resigned about three months ago and has not been replaced.
Sen. Donald Cole said he feels the policy of the governor appointing commissioners to the WAPA board needs to be changed. "The rate payers have been taken to the bank," he said. "It seems like the policy of the board is to let the director run the board."
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste referred to the bill for $32,408 from Bob Lynch Moving and Storage for Vodzack's moving expenses, including a car, from Pennsylvania. He noted that Byron submitted a check dated Feb. 25 but protesting the charges.
Sen. Carlton Dowe said his concern was the continual hiring of off-island residents for executive positions that could be filled by Virgin Islanders. He said V.I. employment history shows a trend that locals act in executive capacities for months, only to be replaced by an outside permanent hire — and then they have to acclimate the new executive replacing them. "We continue to bring everyone foreign as better," he said.
Dowe said only two local residents applied for the position of WAPA executive director last year and that Rothgeb, a longtime WAPA employee, was a finalist.
At the May 7 and 8 hearings, the Finance Committee also will review WAPA issues pertaining to hazardous duty early retirement policy and claims of asbestos exposure.
Appropriations transfers approved
In other business, the committee approved appropriation transfers discussed at its meeting last week:
For the Personnel Division/Office of Collective Bargaining, $46,192.
For the Finance Department, a total in two transfers of $609,389.
For the Internal Revenue Bureau, $290,000.
After hearing testimony from Board of Education officials, the committee also approved an appropriation transfer for the board of $66,750.
Committee members present at roll call were Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Cole, Dowe, Hansen, Jn Baptiste and Pickard-Samuel. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg was absent.
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