Brian Turnbull, former project manager for Balbo Construction Co., testified Wednesday in V.I. District Court that the company “had every intention” of constructing a new office building using design plans that a federal indictment claims were part of an attempt to conceal a conspiracy.
The set of plans was given to Balbo by local architectural firm Jaredian Design Group in 2014, years after a federal investigation had already begun into owners of both companies along with former V.I. Public Finance Authority Director Julito Francis.
Prosecutors in the case against Francis, Jaredian co-principal John Woods and Balbo owner Gerard Castor have alleged that the plans completed by Jaredian were never intended to be used. Instead, they say, the plans served the purpose of making it appear as if Woods was repaying Balbo for work done as his residence in a barter exchange.
Woods is accused of accepting $10,000 worth of improvements to his driveway from Balbo, although some testimony at the trial has placed that value much higher.
Francis allegedly accepted more than $400,000 worth of improvements to his home, including the construction of bedrooms, a pool, a poolroom and a deck. In exchange, prosecutors say, Woods and Francis used their positions of influence to ensure Balbo received lucrative government contracts.
Federal investigators found the timing of negotiations surrounding the design plans suspicious. Woods is accused of sending a letter to Castor memorializing the new barter agreement just days after an indictment was issued in a separate high-profile corruption case involving other V.I. officials. This allegedly occurred in 2012, years after the construction work was completed on Woods’ property.
On Wednesday, Turnbull was adamant that Balbo’s plans to build a new office building for itself were legitimate. He said he had been directly involved in moving the project along during his time with the company from 2008 to 2015.
Turnbull said a few issues had stalled movement of the project, including the need to develop a storm water prevention plan for land Balbo had leased for the building and the fact that the company had fallen significantly behind on that lease.
A line of questioning from federal attorney Justin Weitz intended to cast doubt in the jury’s mind over whether Balbo truly intended to spend the money to build a two-story steel office building when, at one point, it was at least two and a half years behind on its lease payments.
Weitz also questioned why a company with relatively few office employees, one that operated successfully out of its owner’s private residence, was planning to move to a large new building.
Kenneth Benjamin, a Jaredian employee, testified Wednesday that between 2012 and 2014 he had worked on the office plans that were eventually delivered to Balbo.
The prosecution implied that the authenticity of the plans submitted into evidence could be questioned based on possibly contradictory computer timestamps and a lack of dates and signatures.
Other testimony on Wednesday came mostly from character witnesses who took the stand briefly to vouch for the “honesty, truthfulness and integrity” of the case’s defendants.
Former Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls said he felt those three qualities were possessed by Francis, who he has known since high school and who has been his associate in local government circles, including during the construction of the Charles W. Turnbull Regional Library, a project which is at the center of the case.
Former V.I. Attorney General Verne Hodge also testified that he believes Francis, who he has known for decades, is honest, truthful and has integrity.
Local business owner Sebastiano Paiewonsky Cassinelli and Felipe Ayala, chairman of the St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Commission, testified to the strength of the same three character traits in Woods. Both said they have worked closely with Woods over the last decades on preservation and revitalization issues in Charlotte Amalie.
Another potentially important revelation came Wednesday via testimony from Francis’s divorce attorney Andrew Capdeville, who said he had advised Francis not to make payment to Balbo for improvements to his residence until it was determined which party in the divorce would retain ownership of the house.
It is alleged by the prosecution that Francis had no intention of ever paying Balbo for the work, which the federal indictment classified as a bribe.
Presiding Judge Juan Sanchez said he expects just one more day of testimony from defense witnesses before the trial closes at the end of the week. The bulk of the government’s case against the defendants was heard last week.