Brig. Gen. Deborah Howell, adjutant general of the V. I. National Guard and Mona Barnes, director of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, did not provide updates to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety Friday, and Attorney General Claude Walker gave them a reason for staying away – flawed subpoena.
However, the subpoenas ordering them to appear did not have any of the complications of the one that got Felicia Blyden, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, out of testifying at the Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services on Thursday. That subpoena was not precise in indicating where and what committee was holding the hearing.
Friday’s meeting began with a reading of a letter from Walker stating that the subpoenas were flawed and that testifiers need not comply with them. That Howell did not show up for the hearing was a surprise – subpoena or no subpoena – as she told senators at a hearing the week before that she would be there Friday to explain why some National Guard personnel had not been paid for services during hurricane recovery.
After analyzing the criteria for a subpoena outlined by Walker and the subpoenas in question, the only thing senators could find not in compliance with law was the mention of subject matter. Since earlier invitations to Howell and Barns had included the subjects to be discussed the senators did not see how this could be a problem.
“I reviewed the subpoena, and it does not have any flaws in it,” Sen. Alicia “Chucky Hansen said.
“The testifiers who are absent for this committee meeting show an act of defiance and disrespect to this body,” said Sen. Positive Nelson. “We should not have to resort to giving testifiers a subpoena to come to the legislature to answer questions. The testifiers stated that the subpoena was flawed and that’s why they are absent. That is no excuse.”
The senators had three options on how to proceed – issue an order to have a peace officer bring the testifiers in; make personal contact with the testifiers and ask them to come or send out a new subpoena for a later meeting.
Assistant Legal Counsel of the Legislature Auguste Ayala said he did not think the first option was a good one. The senators decided on the third option, and set a meeting for Feb. 15. to receive updates from VITEMA and V. I. National Guard regarding their response and preparedness for recent hurricanes and submit a strategy to streamline responses to future disasters.
“There are big issues in the V.I. National Guard that need to be addressed,” Sen. Novelle Francis said. “It is a travesty that in the State of the Territory address, the governor stated that there were only 12 soldiers who were not paid for their service post-hurricane. In fact, there were complaints from soldiers who received a check that bounced.”
Howell had told the committee previously that the pay issues for National Guard members would be resolved by mid-February.
Sen. Brian A. Smith, chair of the committee called the decision of some officials to disregard the subpoenas “an abomination.”
“The atmosphere around the Legislature is saddening, and it is a disgrace what people are paying for with their tax dollars,” Smith said. “We invited testifiers today to ask questions, and they are absent. This behavior is unacceptable and we as senators, will not accept the people being disrespected. It is an abomination for them to disrespect legislators and the people of the Virgin Islands. There are major issues that need to be resolved.”
Committee members attending and voting unanimously to resend a corrected subpoena out were Sens: Francis, Jean Forde, Positive Nelson, Dwayne DeGraff, and Hansen. Also attending were Sens. Janette Millin Young and Janelle Sarauw.