Fighting the “war against corruption” being waged within the V.I. Department of Justice takes the right “weapons and tools” but former V.I. Attorney General designee Soraya Diase-Coffelt said at a news conference Friday that directives and staffing appointments coming from Government House took away her ability to lead.
Diase-Coffelt said she wasn’t out to attack Gov. Kenneth Mapp and other members of his administration by detailing the circumstances that forced her to resign after just 10 days on the job. Instead, she said she had heard the “cries of the people” for hope, and wanted to let residents know that they can make the push for senators to change the law and create an independent Department of Justice that could effectively uncover and prosecute government corruption.
During the press conference on St. Thomas, Diase-Coffelt said that during her 10 days on the job, she was forced to accept appointments she didn’t agree with, while losing staff that she objected to being fired.
“Leaving was very difficult for me. I was very saddened by having to make that decision, but I saw the handwriting on the wall,” she said Friday. “My power was already being significantly curtailed, and I knew that I was going to be eventually a puppet … and that’s what I refuse to be.”
By law, the governor appoints the V.I. attorney general and higher level attorneys within the department, but after being told that she would be “allowed to pick her own team,” Diase-Coffelt said that she opened up the process to what was left of the Department of Justice staff, allowing them to submit recommendations, resumes and applications for higher level management positions. Diase-Coffelt said she also brought in Kevin Rodriguez, who served as Personnel director under former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, to help with the transition process and assess the department’s staffing situation.
“However, I was forced to accept upper level staffing changes that I did not agree with and had not even been consulted on,” she said. “I was treated as a messenger as I was given letters by the (governor’s) chief of staff to give to two managing attorneys who were being fired the very afternoon that I was given the letters. I was not consulted on these firings and objected to them, especially since these individuals had the experience I needed to move forward.”
Diase-Coffelt said she also received a call after post-inaugural activities on St. John from a DOJ employee, informing her that now acting Attorney General Terri Griffiths had been brought on as solicitor general, but that the appointment could not be announced for a few weeks since Griffiths still had a case pending in court. V.I. law prohibits an attorney to work within Justice while also having their own private practice and Diase-Coffelt said her objections to hiring Griffiths were agreed to by both Mapp and Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter.
“Unbeknownst to me, however, things began to transpire behind my back and within less than a week later I was told that the governor had changed his mind and now insisted that this attorney be given the high level position after all,” Diase-Coffelt said. “Government House’s response to my objection was that I not communicate with that attorney while that attorney was working at the Department of Justice. In other words, I was told that this attorney was untouchable.”
Rodriguez, meanwhile, lasted a day and a half on the job.
“At noon on Jan. 8, I received a call from the governor’s chief of staff, who ordered me to ‘get rid of him,” and have him ‘leave the building immediately,’ Diase-Coffelt said. She added that while on the job, neither she nor Rodriguez — who she said had pinpointed several deficiencies and outlined ways to bring in federal money to hire more staff — were given the opportunity to interview anyone.
Justice’s Special Investigations Division is charged with handling confidential investigations and work outside the V.I. Police Department and Diase-Coffelt said Friday that it was currently without a director and had been “whittled” down to a four-person staff. Two resumes for potential division heads were submitted, and Diase-Coffelt said Friday that she had been told that the governor was “looking into it.”
“Then I received a resume from the governor for his family member, who was to head that department,” Diase-Coffelt said. “In my opinion, that individual didn’t have the experience or qualifications necessary and to have such a person involved in criminal investigations at the Department of Justice was also totally unacceptable to me.”
Diase-Coffelt refuted the statement issued by Government House shortly after she resigned on Jan. 15, which said she resigned because of “a staffing conflict with personnel assembled by the administration.”
“Those were not the true problems, which are much more egregious and profound,” she said. “There were also additional serious problems that I faced and endured … it is my firm belief that the Department of Justice cannot be treated as a governor’s private law firm.”
Wrapping up the press conference, Diase-Coffelt said her goal was to create a Justice Department that “rivaled” the U.S. Attorney’s Office in “experience, professionalism and confidentiality.”
“Rampant corruption will continue unabated and justice will never be achieved if we allow the status quo to remain and business as usual to run the day,” she said.
The press conference comes on the heels of the resignations of two DOJ prosecutors, including attorney Douglas Sprotte, who said he attended the press conference Friday on his own behalf.