Jan. 7, 2004 – Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin on Tuesday called controversy over his handling of an awards ceremony for his department's St. Croix employees "moot," but that hardly seemed to be the case on Wednesday as the senator who initially brought the issue to public attention reported more criticism of the commissioner's actions pouring into his office.
Benjamin had sent two memos to his St. Croix staff on Dec. 22 and Dec. 24. The first administratively granted them a half-day of paid leave on the afternoon of Dec. 23 to prepare for the awards ceremony that evening. The second specified that anyone who didn't attend the ceremony would have their pay docked for the four hours they didn't work. (See "Labor 'command performance' draws senator's ire".)
Sen. Usie Richards' subsequent criticism of Benjamin's actions was vehemently denounced by the commissioner on Tuesday. Benjamin said he had not carried out the threat to dock employees' pay, so the "situation is moot." He also said the awards event was paid for by an internal committee that raised funds "with bake sales and things like that."
On Wednesday, citing telephone calls to his office, Richards challenged several remarks Benjamin had made on Tuesday. "Based on information shared with me from employees who wish to remain anonymous," Richards said, "the St. Croix event wasn't paid for by bake sales and other funds raised by the Labor Department's Labor and Management Committee as Benjamin had stated."
Richards said he was given to understand that the only bake sale the committee sponsored raised $200. The St. Croix senator said he was also told that Hovensa had made a $2,500 contribution toward the event.
Hovensa's vice president for government relations and public affairs, Alexander A. Moorhead, confirmed on Wednesday that Hovensa had "made a contribution to the Department of Labor" but said he was not certain of the amount.
A similar awards event was held on St. Thomas at Palms Court Harborview Hotel on Dec. 20, a Saturday. Benjamin had said that both events were paid for by money the committee had raised. Phyllis Walcott, chief of benefit payment control in the St. Thomas office, said she did not attend the ceremony but understood from her co-workers that it cost $20 for the employees.
Benjamin had said on Tuesday that the offending memos were issued at the request of his department's Labor and Management Committee. "From my vantage point, "Benjamin said Tuesday, "I really didn't want to give the time off, but they [the committee] asked, and I gave it to them."
Richards said on Wednesday that employees "made it clear that they did not request the half day off, nor did they approve accepting the check from Hovensa, because they thought it represented a conflict of interest." Richards said he was also told that the Labor Department has a Penalty and Interest Fund, from which "I understand money is taken for social events."
And, according to his informants, Richards said, no memo formally rescinding the order on docking of pay has been issued.
Richards said Tuesday that he had delayed writing to Benjamin about the affair until Monday, "in hopes he would have taken some action to rescind those memos."
The senator said that another caller to his office claimed that Benjamin did not give out some of the awards, apparently those intended for employees who did not attend the functions.
Benjamin did not return calls for comment on Wednesday.
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