Home News Local news Judge Denies Motions to Dismiss Charges Against Plaskett and Biggs

Judge Denies Motions to Dismiss Charges Against Plaskett and Biggs

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Feb. 20, 2008 — Motions to dismiss the charges against former commissioners Dean Plaskett and Marc Biggs based on a lack of corroborated evidence were shot down Wednesday by presiding District Court Judge Curtis Gomez.
Prosecutors announced that they were resting the case against Biggs, Plaskett and prominent V.I. businessman Leroy Marchena. Then Biggs' attorney, Treston Moore, argued that, with the exception of testimony provided by former DPNR official Hollis Griffin, no other witness could corroborate claims that Plaskett and Biggs conspired to take bribes or kickbacks on fraudulent government contracts.
Plaskett's attorney, Gordon Rhea, echoed Moore's sentiments, and described Griffin — who has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy for his role in the scheme — as a "con man, swindler and admitted drug user."
Moore added that testimony provided by other co-defendants — including Atlanta businessman Esmond J. Modeste, former DPNR official Brent Blyden and former V.I. Fire Services employee Earl Brewley — indicated that they had not directly given Plaskett or Biggs any kickback money, and did not see what Griffin did with the funds after cashing checks for work done on the contracts.
Last week, both Modeste and Brewley said Griffin told them the kickback money was being disbursed between Griffin, Biggs and Plaskett, prosecuting attorney Armando Bonilla countered in response to defense arguments. Bonilla added that Modeste and Brewley had outlined in detail the process by which government checks were processed and deposited in the bank account of Elite Technical Services — a sham company created by Griffin, Blyden, Modeste and Brewley — along with how and when the funds were withdrawn and handed over to Griffin.
Moore also argued that the indictment against Biggs and Plaskett broadly stated when the two commissioners had allegedly received the kickbacks. But Bonilla explained that testimony provided by Modeste and Brewley, along with copies of checks paid by the government, showed that the kickback money changed hands at least three times: On or around Nov. 12, 2002, January 2003 and October 2003. Both Brewley and Modeste testified that once the checks were deposited and the funds withdrawn, the money was usually given to Griffin within 24 hours, Bonilla added.
Marchena's attorney, Charles Grant, referenced other claims that came up during the trial. Grant reminded the judge that his client had only been charged with trying to thwart a federal and local investigation into the Elite Technical Services scheme, and with obstruction of justice. The latter charge was for trying to backdate documents to cover up the fact that little or no work was done on several contracts channeled through DPNR and the Department of Property and Procurement.
Grant argued that other evidence presented during the trial — particularly testimony provided by Atlanta businessman Barry Bennett, who said last week that Marchena once asked him if he "knew anyone that could take care of Hollis Griffin" — was not included in the charges that came out in a federal grand jury indictment handed down in 2007.
"When evidence comes in about contract killings … luncheon meetings with government officials, that constitutes the need for an amendment to the bills on which Mr. Marchena should be tried," Grant argued.
A joint investigation into the Elite scam began as early as 2004, Grant said, and grew in strength after the V.I. Daily News began working on and then published a two-part series on the company's operations and the contracts it was awarded. Marchena never received any inquires from the media on the reports, and didn't know until 2007 that a federal grand jury had been convened to investigate the matter, Grant said.
"How could he (Marchena) seek to hamper proceedings that he didn't know existed until three years later?" Grant asked.
Gomez said he would take Grant's arguments under advisement, but could not dismiss the charges against Biggs and Plaskett by discrediting Griffin's testimony.
"The court cannot weigh the credibility of testimony, while it may be provided by people that one party may regard as unsavory," he said. "That's really the jury's province."
The Prosecution Rests
Before arguing against the motions to dismiss, Bonilla and other prosecuting attorneys attempted to show exactly what Plaskett allegedly spent his kickback money on. Witnesses called to the stand Wednesday testified that Plaskett — former commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources making $85,000 a year — bought three cars from Caribbean Auto Mart in 2004 and began extensive renovations to his home on St. Croix during 2003 and 2004.
Representing Caribbean Auto Mart, sales agent Donna Kovacik said Plaskett bought:
— a $41,000 Toyota Avalon; to cover the $15,000 downpayment on the car, Plaskett paid $3,700 in cash and checks and financed the rest through a bank;
— a Toyota Tundra, on which he made a $10,000 downpayment (covered by both cash and checks) and financed the remaining cost of the car through the bank; and
— a GMC Envoy, valued between $30,000 and $36,000 and financed through a credit union.
Kovacik said that "it's rare to see one individual purchase three cars in one year," and cover the downpayments with a mix of cash and multiple checks.
When asked about various renovations made to Plaskett's home on St. Croix, contractor Vionisi Lorenzo said Plaskett paid him between $22,000 and $25,000 in cash for the work between March 2003 and December 2003. No written records of the transactions were kept, however, since Plaskett had asked the contractor to preclude the cash payments from being included on any invoices or payment records, Lorenzo said.
Deposit slips from Lorenzo's bank account show cash deposits of:
— $3,000 on March 14, 2003;
— $5,000 on April 14, 2003;
— $2,000 on Aug. 8, 2003;
— $2,000 on Sept. 28, 2003; and
— $10,000 on Dec. 3, 2003.
Under cross-examination from the defense, Lorenzo said he had been working on at least three other jobs while completing work on Plaskett's home, and had other clients pay him for the jobs in cash. The funds were not deposited immediately into the bank, he added.
The total dollar value of the renovations was around $90,000, Lorenzo said.
Investigation
Admitted into evidence on Wednesday were videotapes supplied by investigators from the V.I. Inspector General's Office, who conducted interviews with both Plaskett and Biggs in June 2005 — after an investigation into Elite's operations had already been launched. Over the course of the trial, prosecutors have argued that Plaskett and Biggs refused to award a specific contract to Georgia-based PubSafe Engineering Consultants after the company's president stopped paying the commissioners kickbacks on a separate project awarded in late 2001. (See "Refusal to Pay Kickback Cost Company Government Contracts, Witness Testifies.")
On Tuesday, defense attorneys argued that Biggs eventually disapproved PubSafe's second proposal. Biggs did so, they said, after members of a joint-evaluation committee voiced concerns over the failure of PubSafe President David Tucker to initially submit all of his bid documents. The documents included a breakdown of how much the project would cost to complete. The project consisted of developing state plans for the regulation of the territory's medical-waste incinerators and the creation of municipal landfills.
In a letter to Biggs, committee chairman Austin Medina also noted that the committee, which reviewed the proposal, had not come to a consensus on whether to give PubSafe the go-ahead. Rating sheets collected by committee members showed that representatives from Property and Procurement gave Tucker low scores, while DPNR representatives' scores ra
nged from 79 to 86.
The contract was eventually awarded to C&R Environmental Design, a company that sent DPNR an unsolicited bid for the project after Property and Procurement deemed Tucker's proposal "unresponsive." A letter signed by Plaskett was sent to Biggs recommending that C&R get the contract.
On one tape played for the jury Wednesday, Biggs said that once a proposal has gone before an evaluation committee, it is unusual for certain required documents to be submitted for consideration later. In some instances cost analyses have been considered separately, he added.
"The committee is first supposed to look at the company's qualifications, and when a cost proposal is submitted, we invite the vendor to come down and gives us their best prices," Biggs said.
As the tape continued, Biggs added that he "doesn't really" go through all documents that come to his desk for final approval. Property and Procurement, he said, had established a 45-day contracting process, which begins with the advertising of requests for proposals in local media outlets and ends with the submission of a recommendation from the evaluation committee. After a recommendation is submitted, it takes no more than two to three days for the contract to make its way off the commissioner's desk and on to Department of Justice officials and the governor for final approval, he explained.
Documents show that the committee's recommendation to approve PubSafe's proposal was submitted on Oct. 17, 2001. Biggs disapproved the recommendation nearly two months later, and sent a letter to Tucker about his decision on Jan. 3, 2002.
On the tape, Biggs said the recommendation "could not have been sitting in my office for so long."
"There must have been another issue," he told investigators. "I don't remember."
On another tape, Plaskett said he "never got involved with the specifics" of DPNR's contracts, and trusted that that the directors of the department's many divisions "did their jobs" when it came to reviewing and evaluating invoices, contracts and other documents channeled through their offices.
"Every day I signed my name no less than 50 times," Plaskett said. "I trusted that other people did their jobs."
Plaskett added that he thought Griffin had written the letter to Biggs recommending C&R for the job.
The trial picks up again at 8:45 a.m. Thursday.
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