3 V.I. senators heading to D.C. for inauguration
Published: January 18, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - A swing in public opinion and a shortage of cash are keeping a majority of V.I. senators home for President Barack Obama's second inauguration.
Three senators - Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone and Myron Jackson and Clifford Graham - plan to travel to Washington for the inauguration. Jackson and Graham plan to pay their own way, while Malone will use his Senate travel expenses for a plane ticket but use personal funds for his food and lodging.
Unlike in 2009, when seven senators spent more than $22,000 in public funds to attend Obama's inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C., most of the senators in the 30th Legislature said this week they do not plan on attending the 2013 ceremony.
"Hell no, so you guys can crucify us again?" Senate Vice President Sammuel Sanes said, regarding whether he was going.
When Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, seven senators traveled to the nation's capitol to witness the historic moment.
The total cost to V.I. taxpayers was approximately $22,814.
The senators who traveled were Adlah Donastorg Jr., Neville James, Wayne James, Malone, Terrence Nelson, Usie Richards and Patrick Simeon Sprauve.
Malone spent the least amount of money to travel - $1,873.10 - because he stayed with relatives. Donastorg spent the most on the trip, $4,562.89.
Sanes was one of a number of senators to say the 30th Legislature simply cannot afford to send senators on such a trip. He said if anyone in the Senate wants to go, "it's going to be on their own dime."
Freshman Senator Judi Buckley said using public funds for such a trip was "not an option."
"I certainly would not dream of using taxpayer dollars to go, and I'm certainly not in a position to pay for it with personal funds," she said.
Sen. Clarence Payne, also a freshman senator, said he could understand some of the arguments offered to justify using public funds to travel to the 2009 inauguration, but he was critical of the amount of money used in the past.
"I think that the honoring of an African American was significant, and coming from an African American community was significant, and these once-in-a-lifetime events cause that type of - we want to be there," he said. "My problem was the cost. There's no way it should have cost that much. It should have been scaled down. The astronomical cost I've heard and read - that was very unfortunate, you know?"
Nelson, who submitted a $2,500 cash advance request to travel to Obama's 2009 inauguration as a legislative expense, said the territory's financial situation is more dire this time around.
"As much as I would have liked to attend, under the financial crisis we are in, I don't think it would have been approved to travel legislatively," Nelson said.
Nelson said that Obama's second inauguration "doesn't have the same hype" in 2013 as it did four years ago.
Senator At-large Craig Barshinger said he also attended the 2009 event, which he described as "extremely moving."
"But cost considerations reign supreme at this time, and I want to conserve my allotment for legislative purposes," Barshinger said.
The Legislature did not pay for Barshinger's 2009 trip, according to Legislature records.
Still, Barshinger said he feels someone from the 30th Legislature ought to attend the inauguration, and he initially offered to go if none of his colleagues were going to attend.
"As long as someone is going from the Legislature, I don't feel like I have to go," Barshinger said.
Jackson said he went to the 2009 inauguration on his own because he wanted to witness history in the making. He said he plans to go again this year, but he is paying his own way.
"I'm not going to ask the Legislature to pay for the trip, but I will go," he said.
Graham also said he is planning to attend the inauguration and that he, too, will be paying for the trip out of his own pocket.
"I want to pay for it," he said. "The one thing that I really glean from going to an activity like this is you get the networking ability to meet other lawmakers throughout the U.S. A lot of times when we look at issues we have here instead of reinventing the wheel, you can just use other jurisdictions as a template and follow with that."
Graham said that on a personal note he simply wanted to see the president's second inauguration.
"I think it's an educational process that I want to go through for myself," he said. "That's why I'm doing it personally. That is just my choice. I would love to see all 15 senators go to the inauguration; I would not like to see the taxpayers pay for all 15 senators to go to the inauguration."
Malone said he will be in Washington for two events related to the inauguration, but he said he will not be staying for Obama's public swearing-in ceremony Monday. Malone said he has been invited to speak at the Virgin Islands Association Inaugural Ball on Saturday and the U.S.V.I. Friendship Inaugural Ball on Sunday.
The Senate president said the Legislature will be paying for his airfare - which he estimated to be about $500 - and he would be taking care of lodging, transportation and food on his own.
Malone justified the expense with specific reference to the Saturday night event, saying the association includes many people who are from the territory, have family here or own land in the Virgin Islands, and who want to know what is going on.
"In many ways, they're paying for my salary," Malone said. "They have a vested interest in the territory."
Malone said he intends to paint a clear picture for the Washington, D.C., audience of the major issues facing the territory, including its energy crisis with the ever-rising price of electricity, the need to expand the territory's tax base with high-paying jobs and the government reforms the 30th Legislature intends to implement on the heels of the 29th Legislature.
Malone spent $1,873.10 in public funds to attend the 2009 inauguration. When asked previously about that trip, he said he was invited because he was one of the Democratic delegates to the convention that nominated Obama as the Democratic candidate.
He also was the only Virgin Islands representation in the inaugural parade. Malone rode on a float, waving a Virgin Islands flag. "I thought that was good exposure for the territory," Malone said.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, who said she was "absolutely not" attending the inauguration, said she felt taxpayers' money would be better spent to send a legislator on a lobbying trip for an issue that is critical to the territory, such as energy.
"That would be money better spent," Rivera-O'Reilly said. "I'm happy the president was re-elected, but I'll be watching from home."
Sen. Alicia Hansen expressed a similar opinion. She described Obama's election and re-election as "clearly a blessing," but said she did not attend in 2009 and would not be attending next week.
"I'll be there in spirit," Hansen said.
When asked about Malone's plan to spend taxpayer funds on his trip, Hansen said every senator makes his or her own decisions about how to spend their allotments.
"And our constituents will determine whether it was a good expense," she said.
The president of the Virgin Islands Association, Clarence Beverhoudt, said the group does not do any lobbying or advocacy, and he described the association a number of times as "a social group."
St. Croix Sen. Kenneth Gittens said he could understand an official delegate from the 30th Legislature attending inauguration events on the taxpayer's dime. Gittens said he, like Malone, was invited to speak at an inaugural ball. However, Gittens said he will not be attending because of the recent death of his mother.
The 30th Legislature has adopted rules requiring regular public reports disclosing all legislative travel expenses in what members have described as an effort to restore credibility to the territory's legislative body, which has faced intense public criticism and criminal allegations during the last two years.
"We've got to be honest with each other," Sanes said. "One, we can't afford it. And two, the 30th Legislature is all about leading by example. We are conscious of the financial situation we are in."
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com Presidential Inauguration: Who went? What did they spend?
Shawn-Michael Malone - $1,873.10
Patrick Simeon Sprauve - $2,422.55
Terrence Nelson - $2,500
Usie Richards = $3,102.94
Neville James - $3,928.26
Wayne James - $4,425
Adlah Donastorg Jr. - $4,562.89