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Monday, July 15, 2024
HomeNewsLocal governmentO’Neal Resigns As FBI Circles V.I. Government

O’Neal Resigns As FBI Circles V.I. Government

Gov. Albert Bryan, Jr. and Attorney General Designee Gordon Rhea address FBI investigations in government agencies. (Photo courtesy Government House FB)

Facing investigation by federal authorities, Office of Management and Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal complied with Gov. Albert Bryan, Jr.’s call to resign early Monday.

Government House had said previously that Virgin Islands Police Commissioner Ray Martinez’s resignation was also received Sunday but clarified during a press conference Monday that it had not.

Federal agents seized both Martinez’s and O’Neal’s personal cell phones over the weekend, Government House officials confirmed. O’Neal was in Orlando when served a subpoena to testify regarding the contract between the Virgin Islands Police Department and Mon Ethos Pro Support, a company operated by David Whitaker, who, in 2008, admitted to bilking more than $10 million by selling but never delivering, electronic equipment and other criminal activities, according to the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. Whitaker, then 36, was sentenced to more than five years in federal prison.

Asked at a press conference convened Monday to discuss the investigations, Bryan said he didn’t know in detail what they were about and had only the information that those being investigated had told him about.

“I know that papers and phones have been requested from these individuals,” the governor said.

Public spending records reveal that the U.S. Virgin Islands government has paid $3.31 million to Mon Ethos Pro Support, a cybersecurity and surveillance company, since August 2022, including $1.7 million from the Office of Management and Budget and $1.5 million from the Virgin Islands Police Department.

A central concern is whether there was any personal gain for public officials connected to this contract, financed in part with federal relief funds allocated by the American Rescue Plan Act.

O’Neal wrote to her staff before 5:30 a.m. Monday, saying she was stepping down while working to clear her name so as to not be a disruption to the Office, which is in the heat of budget season. The governor said Monday that OMB’s assistant director and the VIPD Assistant Commissioner Mario Brooks will take over operations at their respective agencies until full-time replacements are located, vetted and confirmed.

Meanwhile, Government House spokesperson Richard Motta said he was not privy to the details nor the scope of work in Whitaker’s contract, but having a criminal record does not automatically preclude an individual from obtaining a business license or contracting with the Virgin Islands government.

“The governor has committed to reinvigorating code of conduct and ethics standards for government employees and has enlisted the attorney general and the Virgin Islands inspector general to take a closer look at the procurement processes throughout the various agencies within the Virgin Islands government with the aim of addressing any potential vulnerabilities,” Motta said Monday afternoon.

During the press conference, Bryan added that while his systems are “tight,” because of human flaws, officials needed stay vigilant to keep administration’s system intact.

The governor also said Mon Ethos – whose work, among other things, included the sweep last year on a range of government agencies that had reportedly been “bugged” – had limited access to government cyber data and security but did supply the cameras that had led to the speedy arrest of the man accused of killing a Public Works employee at the tail-end of 2023 St. Thomas Carnival festivities.

Still, this was not the only government contract federal investigators were probing.

V.I. Sports, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Calvert White declined to discuss investigations Monday other than to say federal officials were on hand reviewing contracts, which, during the Monday press conference, Bryan said included a $1.8 million proposal for surveillance cameras for Sports, Parks and Recreation’s facilities, and cameras for the Education Department on St. Croix. Bryan added that all contracts were being pulled and under review, though the latter two had not yet “been let.” Meanwhile, he added that he had not yet called for White’s resignation, having been informed Monday morning that White’s phone had been seized.

Meanwhile, Bryan said he had signed the Mon Ethos Pro Support contract but acknowledged he did not investigate the company or its founder. He mentioned that he signs all contracts over $1 million, processes many contracts regularly and was unsure if he signed the $1.4 million Education contract.

“I don’t know about anyone warning me about signing contracts with Mon Ethos or David Whitaker,” the governor said in response to questions from the media during Monday’s presser about whether he was advised not to engage with the company. Additionally, asked about the number of contracts awarded to Mon Ethos, Bryan added that the availability of surveillance camera footage has returned “excellent results in terms of our crime” and that he was satisfied with the work by the company, saying “things are based on results.”

Meanwhile V.I. Attorney General nominee Gordon Rhea, also on hand at the press conference, added that neither Martinez nor O’Neal had been charged, arrested, nor even indicted and advised Bryan not to go into detail. Even without the warning, Bryan stumbled through many of his responses Monday.

“This is common with any investigation so in respect for them, let’s see where this will go,” Rhea said, adding the V.I. Justice Department will investigate the allegations as well, while Bryan said the administration is cooperating fully with its federal partners as the investigation continues.

Bryan added that as far as he knows, no one else is under investigation, as nothing else has been announced.

This latest development comes a week after the arrests of V.I. Education Department’s Maintenance Director Davidson Charlemagne and his wife, Sasha, June 9.

U.S. Attorney Delia L. Smith announced the arrests after a federal grand jury indicted the couple on charges of government program fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracy. The indictment also implicates former Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority Chief Operating Officer Darin Richardson, 56, of St. Thomas, with criminal conflict of interest and making materially false statements.

According to court documents, the charges stem from a two-year investigation involving a VIHFA contract for storage and management of wood that was shipped to the territory to be used for the reconstruction of commercial and residential buildings following hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Asked about the disposition of the contract, which stands at $4 million, the governor said he hadn’t read it but requested a copy from the VIHFA board and wondered at its worth after seven years of storage as it continues to sit at the Alexander Henderson School on St. Croix.

Nothing was said about the homes that were to be rebuilt with the wood, nor whether homeowners left with deteriorating and depreciating houses have been impacted.

“This has been a dark day for us. It’s been a brutal week and a half. I think this will continue for a while, but right now we need to regroup, refocus, get these positions filled because we have a lot going on in the territory,” Bryan said.

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