Members of the 34th Legislature Committee on Rules and the Judiciary on Thursday rejected a measure calling on Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. to remove a member of his cabinet. The bill was sponsored by a lawmaker who once worked with the Bureau of Corrections and was a harsh critic of Director Wynnie Testamark.
Bill No. 34-0209, sponsored by Sen. Franklin Johnson, asks that Bryan either demand Testamark’s resignation or otherwise terminate her. The director was appointed by the governor in February 2019 after serving 29 years with the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department. Prior to that appointment, Testamark briefly served as a consultant to Government House over two longstanding federal court decrees to improve conditions in the territory’s jail and prison.
As he introduced the bill to the Rules Committee at a hearing held Thursday, Johnson said conditions at the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility (recently renamed after former Sen. John Bell) were worse than ever and had been made so by Testamark’s bad management practices and bad attitude.
“Wynnie Testamark has been nothing but a failure to the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections,” Johnson said. To support his claim, the St. Croix senator and former Corrections employee displayed a media presentation of the prison illustrating conditions he said workers there complained about.
Johnson also pointed to the number of Corrections personnel who have either been fired, resigned, or retired since the director began her duties. Rules Committee Chairman Milton Potter gave each committee member a chance to question the sponsor or offer their thoughts, but first, he asked the clerk in the Senate chamber to read the day’s correspondence.
One letter came from Testamark, who said she was invited to appear on Thursday but respectfully declined. The director said she served at the pleasure of the governor, and it was up to Bryan to determine her job status.
The other was from United Industrial Workers-Seafarers International Union President Jacqueline Dickenson, who was also invited. It was unfair, Dickenson said, to attribute all of the problems at the territory’s prison to the current director. She added that it’s not the union’s role to “hire or fire any public officials.”
Dickenson also addressed complaints she received from union members working as Corrections personnel at the prison. “I would do and have done all I can do to address their workplace concerns,” she said. The union leader said it would be better for lawmakers to censure Testamark and not try to orchestrate her removal.
One invited testifier appeared by way of a videoconferenced link. Former U.S. Bureau of Prisons Lieutenant David Endino told the committee he was owed $2,915.16 by Corrections. When lawmakers asked him to explain the circumstances linked to the debt, Endino said he was brought in by Testamark as an acting assistant warden on St. Croix. But after a few weeks, he was called into the director’s office and told his services were no longer needed.
“I do not know if I am a former or a current BOC employee,” Endino said.
When the round of questioning began, committee member Novelle Francis supported the view expressed by Dickenson. “We should not be holding one person solely accountable for the failures at the prison,” he said.
The court-ordered consent decree over Golden Grove had been around for 34 years, he said, and 34 years’ worth of problems cannot be placed on one person. But like others who spoke at Thursday’s hearing, Francis stopped short of offering Testamark his full support. He did, however, question Endino about whether he had filed any payment claims with the government or with Corrections.
The witness said he had not.
Rules Committee Vice Chair Kenneth Gittens asked Senate Legal Counsel Amos Carty Jr. if the Legislature had the authority to enact a measure like 34-0209. Carty said yes; the Senate had the right to ask the governor to remove a cabinet member. But he added that the governor also had the right to ignore their request.
Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory, a non-committee member, appeared briefly at the hearing to chastise the bill’s sponsor. Citing past statements and actions when it came to other female members of government, Frett-Gregory said Johnson stood out as one who stood in opposition to women in authority.
She also asked Johnson if, at any time, he had approached Testamark to discuss the conditions at the prison or the complaints of Corrections workers. The sponsor said no, he had not.
“I’m not saying that she’s right … I’m saying we need to give people their proper respect,” the Senate president said.
Sen. Carla Joseph called the measure “a low point for the Legislature.”
Potter said 34-0209 was placed on the committee’s agenda because it “was properly placed before the Committee on Rules and the Judiciary.”
However, Potter added, he “wholeheartedly disagrees with this bill.”
“I think one of our objectives is to problem solve. It’s imperative to sit with the agency head and pursue a common objective, without any hidden agendas,” he said.
At the end of the discussion, lawmakers voted to table the bill indefinitely.