May 25, 2004 – Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, heard something very un-carnival-like at Tuesday night's hearing into the finances of the V.I. Carnival Committee: silence.
The two committee representatives invited to testify, Kenneth Blake, the committee chair, and Caswill Callender, the executive director, did not show up.
The hearing on St. Thomas, originally scheduled for May 10, had been postponed at V.I. Carnival Committee officials' request. At the start of the meeting Donastorg stated that Blake and Callender had failed to supply requested financial documents and that Callender had personally refused to accept delivery of a second reminder earlier on Tuesday.
"They asked for postponement, and we gave it to them," Donastorg said. "They're not here, and we've heard nothing from them. Any organization that is funded by taxpayer dollars needs to have transparency and accountability in its financial practices."
While the committee is a not-for-profit organization, its principal source of funding is legislative appropriations.
Donastorg also pointed out that in its 52-year history, the committee has never been audited.
A similar Finance Committee hearing on St. Croix last Friday looked at the books of the Crucian Christmas Festival. At that meeting, senators learned that questionable accounting practices and funding problems have put the festival into the red by more than $70,000. (See the St. Croix Source report "Bounced Checks, Unpaid Debt Mar Crucian Festival".)
On Tuesday, the five senators present briefly voiced confusion, frustration and sadness at the Carnival Committee leadership's stonewalling. Then they voted to subpoena Callender, Blake and Derrick A. Gumbs, committee treasurer, as well as committee financial documents going back to 2001.
In the face of what Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd characterized as an effort to "resist any investigation," Callender and his colleagues will have 72 hours to appear before the Finance Committee, checkbooks and receipts in tow.
Sen. Usie Richards, who is not a member of the Finance Committee, voiced the only objection to the issuing of subpoenas. "You're going to subpoena them, and then you're going to bring them in here, and then what?" he said. "You can't investigate them, because the Inspector General's Office has not been given the resources" to conduct another investigation.
Richards questioned the seriousness of the Legislature's commitment to "fiscal responsibility." "There will be no audit if there is no money appropriated above and beyond what the I.G.'s Office is getting now," he said.
During a brief recess, Inspector General Steven G. van Beverhoudt, who was not called upon to testify in the absence of the Carnival Committee witnesses, confirmed Richards' statements. "We have seven investigators, and one of them is about to retire," he said. "We are currently conducting 12 different investigations. We have neither the manpower nor the funding to take on something else right now."
Van Beverhoudt said his inability to audit the Carnival Committee is not for lack of interest. He said he has wanted to do just that for several years but that Callender has refused to acknowledge "that the I.G.'s Office has the right" to do so. "We have the authority to do the audit and I've sent letters to Mr. Callender informing him of that," van Beverhoudt said.
The government gave the Carnival Committee $350,000 this year, $325,000 in 2003 and $600,000 in 2002 (for the 50th anniversary celebration).
All senators present affirmed their support for carnival. Many voiced confusion that a hearing intended to do nothing more than bring financial transparency to a tax-supported organization has turned into what Liburd called "a chess match."
There were nods of agreement and reminiscences all around when Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said: "I've done more than support carnival, I've been in it since I could walk."
The person at the hearing with perhaps the most pressing need to know what's happening with the V.I. Carnival money was the 2004 Carnival calypso king, Allan "Brother Mudada" Fortune. As the winner, he was to receive a check for $5,000. But he said he has heard "nothing from the Carnival Committee" and has yet to see the prize money.
Sen. Louis Hill summed up the general mood in the chamber when he said: "This is a very sad situation. Clearly we recognize the importance of carnival to this culture, to our way of life. This is a very serious situation."
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name, and the city and state/country or island where you reside.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.