April 18, 2006 – After clearing up many legal matters and concerns, senators finally voted to approve a lease between the government and V.I. Recycling Co. during a Finance Committee meeting Tuesday.
The lease – which provides for the operation of an automobile recycling center, including the detoxification of cars, scrap metal processing and waste recycling – was held back during the last two committee meetings and had initially sparked concerns for senators who thought that one of the lessees — Jimez Ashby — owed the government money for the operation of the Clinton Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas (See "Finance Committee Holds Up Lease for V.I. Recycling Co.").
Senators were further concerned after receiving a letter from Housing, Parks, and Recreation Commissioner Ira M. Hobson during the last committee meeting which stated that he had waived the debt in exchange for services that were provided to the department by A-9 Trucking – a company in which Ashby and his father are principals.
Responding to statements made Tuesday by senators who said the department lacked the "statutory authority" to take care of the debt – totaling some $6,240 – with an exchange of services, Hobson said, "I tried to solve the problem in the best way I can."
He explained that when a lease agreement between the department and Lester Ashby's company, New Image Racing, came before the Legislature last year, senators said to terminate the agreement and turn the promotional responsibilities of the track over to the department. "There was no funding or equipment attached to that," Hobson said. "And the only person who had the equipment necessary to water the track was Lester Ashby. We could have gone and put out a Request for Proposal (RFP), but that would have taken months, so I did what was in the best interest of the people."
Hobson also said that he never intended to erase Ashby's debt, and that the exchange of services was "the only way to do it – otherwise we would have had to shut down the horse track."
In his opening statement, Hobson told senators that A-9 Trucking & Enterprises Inc., one of the principals in V.I. Recycling Co., had nothing to with the debt, and explained that the promotional agreement with Lester Ashby was only developed after the previous promoter had left the island, owing the department $5,200.
Ashby's agreement, he said, including the cleaning and maintenance of the track at a cost of $1,000 per month. "After some misunderstanding, the department terminated that agreement," Hobson said. "At the time of the termination, Mr. Ashby owed the department $6,240; this was settled by the work done for the department over the preceding months to the tune of $6,815. Thus, the department is satisfied that that Mr. Ashby cleared his obligation to the department with all races ."
Some senators were not convinced. "I don't like this practice of cutting deals," Sen. Neville A. James said, adding that Lester Ashby was awarded two different contracts by the department to manage the track. "It was documented that Ashby's company was negligent – that's why the contract was terminated. I don't know if the law allows a commissioner to say that he can settle the debt with $6,000 worth of work."
Sen. Usie R. Richards was more vocal in his opposition, and added that New Image Racing was given a temporary promotional agreement after Estri — a previous promoter comprised of Equus (a Puerto Rican-based company) and St. Thomas Racing Inc., (a company in which Lester Ashby was also a principal) — owed the department thousands of dollars.
Richards further questioned Hobson about the department's lack of documentation – including past invoices and leases for past promoters. This was a bone of contention for Richards at a Senate meeting held last year about the status of horseracing at Clinton Phipps.
Senators were also concerned about a document provided by the Legislature's Post Audit division stating that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull would be submitting a bill recommending the government pay A-9 Trucking for work done at Clinton Phipps without a contract – a practice which many said is becoming "habitual."
Hobson explained that the repairs were conducted after the island was hit by a hurricane and that the territory was under a state of emergency. He said at the time, the department was allowed to "go through" three companies to do the repairs without issuing an RFP. Since Lester Ashby already had a government contract at the time, he said, it made more sense to "go through him." Hobson added the department took the issue up to Property and Procurement after the work was completed and tried to get a proper contract.
When asked, Lester Ashby said the department still owes him the difference for the work A-9 performed on the track – which equals some $575. Hobson said the department is working on an agreement to take care of the debt.
While most senators said they were "satisfied" by Hobson's statements, Richards and Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville voted against approving the lease, while Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Louis P. Hill, James, and Norman Jn Baptiste voted for it.
All committee members were present during Tuesday's meeting, along with noncommittee member Sen. Liston Davis.
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