Growing frustration over the Bryan administration’s perceived conflicts of interest has compelled lawmakers to hold a “fact-finding” Committee of the Whole hearing next week to probe government contracts linked to Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s family and friends.
In a statement Saturday, Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. said the public deserves a “true accounting” of the contracting and procurement process, and that the Aug. 5 hearing will delve into contracts awarded by the V.I. Health Department, V.I. Housing Finance Authority and other contracts reportedly granted under exigency circumstances.
“It is understandable why the community feels that their trust has been violated,” Francis said. “These actions come at a time when many Virgin Islanders are in distress.”
Francis’ announcement came amid a growing backlash against the Bryan administration and the perceived favoritism shown toward the governor’s family and friends who have landed — or who are about to land — lucrative government contracts or jobs.
Last week, The Daily News reported that Avera Tech, a software startup on St. Croix, founded by Bryan’s former intern, Michael Pemberton, and his daughter, Aliyah Bryan, was favored to get a $1 million, no-bid contract from the Health Department to do contact tracing for at least three years.
Further investigation revealed that Avera Tech was neither licensed to do business in the territory nor had any prior experience with contact tracing.
Bryan, under scrutiny, said he knew of Avera Tech’s bid but was not aware of the contract length or amount. He also justified the company’s hasty selection by describing contact tracing as a matter of “public health exigency.”
The Daily News also reported that The Strategy Group USVI, which is chaired by Bryan’s former campaign manager, John Engerman, was recently awarded a three-year, $2.1 million contract from the Housing Finance Authority to do public relations and marketing.
Engerman, who reportedly has multiple contracts with government entities, dismissed any notion of a conflict of interest, telling The Daily News that “everyone knows everyone” in a territory so small and that his relationship with Bryan doesn’t preclude him from competing in a bidding process.
Both contracts for Avera Tech and The Strategy Group USVI are funded by federal grants.
Bryan also came under scrutiny when his wife, Yolanda, was named “business ambassador” last year for the Economic Development Authority, an agency he formerly led. Yolanda Bryan reportedly has a salary of $76,500 a year.
“The territory has come under intense criticism time and time again for our mishandling of public funds — especially those awarded by the federal government,” Francis said. “The Legislature has a responsibility to ensure that our funds are being managed in a way that is above reproach, especially at a time when our economic challenges demand that we stretch every dollar as far as possible to meet the needs of our community.”
In addition to the perceived misuse of funds, lawmakers have voiced their concerns over Bryan’s dismissal of normal procurement procedures in the name of exigency circumstances.
Earlier this month, the territory’s state of emergency was given an automatic, 30-day extension without legislative consideration due to a statutory wrinkle in the law.
According to Act 8128, which pertains to the declaration of states of emergency, the governor must seek approval from the Legislature to extend a state of emergency beyond its initial 60 days. However, if the Legislature fails to consider the request within five days, the state of emergency is automatically extended for an additional 30 days.
That scenario, according to Francis, actually played out.
Francis said the governor’s decision to submit his request just days after the Senate convened a full legislative session on June 29 made reconvening a session “neither prudent nor cost-effective.”
“I wish the governor had sent down the request prior to that so it would have been considered on the 29th,” Francis said. “To get all 15 senators back together and for us to have reworked our agenda to move within that five-day period for a session wasn’t prudent at all.”
While Francis acknowledged that he agreed with the extension, he added that his colleagues are considering moving legislation to modify the statute “in the near future” to shore up this loophole.