The Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to favourably recommend the appointment of business owner Marvin Forbes to the V.I Port Authority Board and former Sen. Usie Richards to the Casino Control Commission.
Neither vote was unanimous and senators expressed concerns about both nominees.
For Forbes, Thursday’s hearing was his second time defending his nomination to the committee. At a previous hearing in March, senators expressed doubts that Forbes’ previous experience prepared him for a position on the VIPA board and were critical of the lack of detail in his responses to questions. (See Link: Senate Moves on Chief Negotiator and Lottery Commission Nominees)
Most committee members said they found Forbes’ presentation Thursday much improved over his first one in March.
Sen. Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly thanked him for “putting some meat on the bones” of his last testimony.
Forbes said that since his last hearing, he had prepared by holding meetings with VIPA staff and stakeholders in port activities, attending monthly VIPA board meetings and conducting site visits of various port properties. He presented to senators three long-term goals and three short-term goals he would pursue if confirmed to the VIPA Board.
Forbes said his short-term goals were to seek to streamline the permitting process to the Army Corps of Engineers; to move the board’s existing workload ahead, which has been slowed down by board vacancies and a lack of quorum; and to develop innovative revenue generating projects at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport.
His stated long-term goals were to help VIPA secure ocean dumping permits for dredge spoils; to attract new light and heavy industries on St. Croix’s south shore; and to advocate policies that would enhance the territory’s charter boat industry.
Forbes went on to share the specifics of his proposal for a development project called Croix Dock, an imagined Frederiksted facility he compared to Navy Pier in Chicago. The proposal included shops, restaurants and entertainment venues stretching from the current site of Ann E. Abramson Pier northward.
“Croix Dock is a multifunction facility where cruise visitors, residents and overnight visitors are immersed in the culture, arts, foods, rich history and music of the Virgin Islands,” he said.
When questioned by senators about the proposal’s price tag, Forbes said a rough estimate would be upwards of $30 million. He said he had mentioned the proposal to VIPA board members and staff but had not had any “in-depth conversations” about it. He added that he had not done a cost benefit analysis but envisioned that the project, if undertaken, would change the economic face of Frederiksted.
When pressed further about how he planned to make Croix Dock happen, Forbes acknowledged his proposal was “just a concept.” He said it was not something that could happen overnight but that St. Croix needs to begin looking at projects of this magnitude.
Committee Chairman Kenneth Gittens said, “One may wonder if this will actually come about, but what we need is innovative thinking.”
Sen. Janette Millin Young, who joined the hearing late via Skype, turned out to be the toughest critic on the committee of Forbes’ testimony. She said she had doubts that his experience with the organizations he mentioned being involved in – such as the Boy Scouts of America and the St. Croix Orchid Society – were relevant to the overseeing of the territory’s ports.
“To tell you the full truth, I still don’t see how we have advanced from the last hearing to now,” Millin Young said. “Or how in the last couple months the prerequisite experience could have been gained.”
Forbes is also the owner of a satellite communications company on St. Croix and is president of the V.I. Action Group, a citizen group that was active in unsuccessful efforts to recall members of the St. Croix Board of Elections.
Sen. Justin Harrigan joined Millin Young in voting against recommending to the full Senate that Forbes be confirmed. Rivera-O’Reilly, Gittens and Francis voted in favour.
When it came to the consideration of Richards’ nomination to the Casino Control Commission, senators agreed that he was well qualified for the position. Instead, discussion centered on the issue of Richards’ character.
Committee members questioned the former senator on his history of being accused of sexual harassment, which made headlines multiple times over the course of his 10 years in the Legislature. (See Link: Accusers Turn Up the Heat on Usie)
Sen. Jean Forde said he had received several calls from constituents asking him to not to cast a favorable vote for Richards’ confirmation due to their concerns over the sexual harassment charges.
The charges were never proven in court. In 2009, a case filed by two of his accusers was settled out of court, but Richards said the V.I. Legislature was the defendant with the most say in the settlement, which according to him, he never agreed to.
“None of the articles I have read [about the charges] have outlined any acceptance of responsibility on your behalf. The accusers are quite large in number. It’s more than five,” Forde said.
When Forde asked Richards whether he was sorry for any past behavior, Richards said he, in fact, felt he was owed an apology by his accusers.
Richards said he believed the charges against him were part of a political conspiracy by the Legislature’s majority caucus at the time to discredit him, a minority member. All of his accusers were employees of majority caucus members, he said.
“You are making the assumption that there was some behaviour in the past that was not appropriate,” Richards responded to Forde.
Richards said he was glad to accept his current nomination from Gov. Kenneth Mapp because it would give him what he said was his first chance to address the accusations, which he denies, in a public forum.
A few of the sitting senators on the committee had served with Richards in previous legislatures. Rivera-O’Reilly said Richards had been a role model for her when they served in the 28th Legislature, she as the only woman. She said she had admired him for his work ethnic, toughness and intellect.
“I remember watching you and saying I want to be like Usie,” she said.
The majority of the committee was ultimately convinced that Richards’ extensive resume in the public sector and on boards outweighed any ambiguity surrounding his sexual harassment charges.
Sens. Novelle Francis Jr., Rivera-O’Reilly and Gittens voted to recommend Richards’ confirmation by the full Senate. Sens. Forde and Millin-Young voted against the motion. Sen. Harrigan was absent from the vote and Senate President Neville James did not vote.