Hours prior to V.I. senators — sitting as a Committee of the Whole — hearing conflicting details relative to a nearly $1 million contract that would have benefited a startup company co-founded by his eldest daughter, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. requested another 60-day extension to the current State of Emergency, which is in effect until Monday.
The governor said he was seeking the extension through Oct. 9, citing the COVID-19 virus risk posed to the territory as a travel destination, as well as the unpredictability of the virus.
Such a request would have been met with understanding — even kudos — any other time, but it’s skeptical at best given the timing of the Avera issue. It’s especially so given that even more conflicting details emerged from the Health Department during Wednesday’s hearing.
Senate President Novelle E. Francis Jr. scheduled that hearing to probe all contracts negotiated or signed off on during the State of Emergency first instituted March 13. This, after it was revealed during a Finance Committee hearing late last month that Avera was in line to receive a three-year $998,000 no-bid contract to provide contact tracing for COVID-19 cases in the Virgin Islands.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion made the jaw-dropping announcement that negotiations with Avera ceased on July 23. If you’re doing the math, that’s just two days after the no-bid contract came to light during the Senate Finance Committee hearing, and where Encarnacion struggled to explain why the startup company — founded by Aliyah Bryan and the governor’s former intern, Michael Pemberton — was in line to receive the no-bid contract after a 72-hour turnaround process which cited “public exigency.” Days later, The Daily News revealed that Avera did not even have a V.I. business license. The governor subsequently defended the process during a “press box” streamed on social media. At the time, he called out senators and the media for exposing details and questioning the proposed contract.
And, in a follow-up briefing into which the media were allowed, Bryan responded that he was unaware about some aspects of the contract; that he would recuse himself since it was “my child” involved, and that he would defer a decision on the contract to Lt. Gov. Tregenza Roach. The press briefing was held July 27, and if Encarnacion is to be believed, four days after contract negotiations with Avera were terminated.
Roach, in a July 28 statement and without identifying Avera by name, told the public he had written to Bryan calling for contract negotiations to cease. He also suggested using available resources within the Bureau of Information Technology and the University of the Virgin Islands. We might add that his recommendation was pooh-poohed by his subordinate, Government House spokesperson Richard Motta Jr. Roach further questioned the public exigency being bantered about by noting that if the V.I. was still trying to identify contact tracing companies at such a late date, the territory was “up a creek.”
Again, if Encarnacion is to be believed, negotiations with Avera had already been discontinued by the time Roach issued his rejection relative to signing off had the contract arrived at his desk. “Trust me, the process would have been vetted thoroughly,” Encarnacion told senators Wednesday — nearly two weeks since negotiations purportedly ceased.
Who is Encarnacion kidding? And can she even get her story straight? We recall that at Bryan’s July 27 briefing, she was insisting that Avera was the only company to have turned in a proposal as justification for the Health Department to proceed with negotiations.
That is, until Roach threw the proverbial monkey wrench into the proceedings.
Former President Ronald Reagan coined the phrase “Trust, but verify,” in reference to claims by Russia, and it serves as a rallying point for senators as they consider Bryan’s request for a 60-day extension on the current State of Emergency. One wonders what other friends and family are lying in wait for possible lucrative contracts from the Bryan administration under the guise of “public exigency.” Meanwhile, Bryan’s haphazard and costly mistakes — such as mandating plastic tableware and sudden closings of beaches and bars — have caused undue economic harm at a time when the V.I. government needs every dollar.
A State of Emergency is intended for sudden disasters, such as hurricanes. Yet, by the Bryan administration’s apparent definition, the territory’s fiscal crisis is a bigger “emergency” than COVID-19. We’ve said this before, but neither Bryan nor those coming after him should be given such unfettered powers.
During the State of Emergency, for example, Bryan and his advisers had decided days in advance on certain mandates without input from stakeholders and citing public exigency, but waited until press briefings to announce the mandates would go into effect immediately. Case in point: his Executive Order dated July 9 on closing bars and early beach closings on weekends was first mentioned during his July 13 press conference, but was not publicly issued until a day later. In other mandates, such as disposable tableware, he twice delayed the implementation. He eventually implemented it, noting it was at the behest of the Health Department, with not a single COVID-19 case to date traced to restaurants — unlike Limetree Bay Terminals on St. Croix. It begs asking whether the delays were part of the justification for the Avera contract? If the tableware mandate was truly an emergency, then the administration needlessly and recklessly endangered the lives of Virgin Islanders during the delay. And, if there was no real emergency, it was a pointless action that caused needless damage to V.I. businesses, their employees and the already-fragile V.I. economy.
These are all questions Sens. Janelle Sarauw and Donna Frett-Gregory are correctly asking. “Was it truly a matter of exigency when DOH knew Avera had no business license?” and other pertinent documents, Sarauw asked during Wednesday’s hearing.
“Citing exigency for the manner in which the department of health proceeded is a faulty premise,” she added. “It couldn’t have been exigent if we were waiting for all these documents to come in.” Frett-Gregory called on V.I. leaders, appointed and elected, to do what is just. “This should be a wake-up call for all of us to do the right thing regarding exigency,” she said.
Will senators grant the Bryan administration a 60-day extension — essentially another chance to dole out contracts to friends and family? We should know soon enough.