Home News Local news SUBPOENAED WAPA OFFICIALS GET SENATE GRILLING

SUBPOENAED WAPA OFFICIALS GET SENATE GRILLING

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May 7, 2002 – Tuesday's seven-hour session was only the beginning of the Senate Finance Committee's probe into the Water and Power Authority's financial status and management practices, the committee chair, Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, made clear.
Hansen stated that after an April 16 hearing where WAPA board chair Carol Burke was the only "invited" witness to appear, questions had been left unanswered. She showed a videotape segment of that hearing in which Burke responded to questions about the moving expenses of chief financial officer Robert Vodzack and about an impasse between WAPA employees and then-executive director Joseph R. Thomas Jr.
Hansen asked Burke Tuesday how the board plans to recoup "mismanaged" funds from Thomas for what she termed unauthorized personal amenities and the moving expenses in excess of a $6,000 cap that were paid to Bob Lynch Trucking & Shipping to ship Vodzack's car and household belongings from Pennsylvania.
"At the last special session called by the board, Mr. Thomas offered that he and the board come to a settlement based on his tenure and suggested that we come to amicable terms." Burke said. She said Thomas presented a six-page document but that the board did not use it to formulate the settlement plan.
Burke said the severance agreement covered six areas: termination, severance compensation, additional compensation, covenant, entire agreement and severability.
The agreement provided that Thomas was to receive two lump-sum payments of $150,000 and $19,538, as bonus and leave pay, by the close of business on May 6, 2002, and that he would have the same or a similar health and benefits package for one year. The agreement was signed by Thomas, Burke and the board secretary, Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Andrew Rutnik.
"Mr. Thomas isn't doing bad," Hansen said Tuesday. "He spends without authorization, he goes beyond his limit, the board determines it's a violation and the board rewards him with compensation."
When Burke could not detail the board's plan to recoup the funds, several senators compared Thomas's actions to those of former V.I. Lottery commissioner Alec Dizon, who was sentence to prison for defrauding the government, and former Public Works Commissioner Ann Abramson, who is serving time for making false claims and statements regarding federal funds.
Strong suggestions for a successor
Hansen set the tone Tuesday in saying the Legislature has oversight for WAPA as a public utility. "What kind of mocko jumbie type of attorneys that we have that can tell you that the legislature has no jurisdiction? These are serious times for serious business," she said.
Burke said Glenn Rothgeb as acting executive director is currently the official spokesman for WAPA.
Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole said, "I believe it's a V.I. company, and we in the V.I. have qualified individuals to mange this company." The comment brought applause from the audience in the chamber. Several senators made it clear they want to see Rothgeb, a 24-year WAPA veteran, as the next executive director. "We must make up our minds that even if errors are made, we must make sure jobs go to people here," Dowe said. "This kind of madness has got to stop. We can't continue to do this." He said he was thankful to former governor Juan Luis, who appointed him as fire chief at the age of 25 with a degree in fire services.
Senators also questioned Vodzack's employment agreement. WAPA legal counsel Cathy Smith said it is a binding contract, but Burke said it was not authorized by the board or signed by Thomas. Burke said Vodzack will remain on the payroll for the time being.
The agreement was signed on Sept. 25, 2001, by a WAPA human resources employee on behalf of human resources director Glenworth Byron. In testimony, Byron said one of his tasks is the recruitment of and negotiation with personnel based on the director's initiative. "You can't be blamed, Mr. Byron," Hansen said. "The board should be the ones to review and refuse."
Hansen said Rothgeb has been in charge of WAPA in an interim capacity about a dozen times over her 16 years in the Senate. "If this WAPA board does not elect you this time, this Legislature will have to do something," she told him. "Don't make that mistake again," she advised Burke who had pushed for Thomas's confirmation a little over a year ago.
Subpoenas bring people and paperwork
Except for Thomas, all witnesses who had been subpoenaed to testify Tuesday were present: Rothgeb, Vodzack, Smith, Byron, comptroller Maurice Sebastien and systems planning director John Christian. Burke was "invited" to testify, not subpoenaed.
The committee also had subpoenaed 30 items of WAPA documentation in April. Post auditor Kris Ramkissoon told the senators the documents had been submitted Tuesday morning, but he could not confirm the content of the four large 3-inch binders.
The items requested were for the period April 1, 2001 – April 6, 2002. They include contractual agreements for goods and services, insurance policies, invoices, checks issued to officials and board members, reimbursements, financial reports, leases, audits, a curriculum vitae for Thomas and one for Vodzack, "private plate motor vehicles" and other documents.
Sebastien submitted documents including detailed meter-reader tasks and contractual arrangements with J.R. Thomas Associate Inc. and J & R Thomas Associates. Byron submitted a list of WAPA employees eligible for early retirement at hazardous duty pay that was originally submitted to the Government Employees Retirement System last Nov. 15. Smith said that all requested documents were submitted.
"I personally cannot review those documents and intelligently pursue the issues," Cole commented. Then he asked Rothgeb, "How is our cash flow at WAPA? My concern is the financial stability of WAPA and its bonding capacity."
In response to Cole's request to have copies of documents in advance of hearings, Hansen commented: "That's why we have a continuation meeting tomorrow [Wednesday] on St. Thomas." And, she added, "Certainly tomorrow will not end it."
Other issues discussed included meter-reading procedures and staffing, energy consumption and rates, the status of a temporary restraining order requested by Thomas after the April employee unrest, and fuel conservation methods. Hansen asked for a detailed listing within 30 days of all WAPA equipment and its energy loss and output capacity.
Present for the roll call were Sens. Cole, Dowe, Alicia Hansen and Norman Jn Baptiste. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg was absent. Sens. Norma Pickard-Samuel and Douglas Canton Jr. were excused.

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