Ex-VINGN president loses wrongful termination suit

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ST. THOMAS - The American Arbitration Association determined that former V.I. Next Generation Network President Julito Francis was not a victim of defamation and wrongful termination, as he claimed.

Instead, the association found that Francis took shortcuts in procurement actions, was negligent in hiring practices and did not timefully disclose V.I. Next Generation Network deficiencies to the board when they were brought to Francis' attention by federal authorities.

Neither the association nor Francis could be reached for comment Tuesday to see whether Francis has yet paid off incurred expenses of $11,450 in administrative fees and costs of the association, as well as $16,554.90 in compensation and expenses of the arbitrator.

Current V.I. Next Generation Network President Larry Kupfer said he did not know the status of Francis' payment of the arbitration fees.

Francis started as the V.I. Next Generation Network president in January 2011 with an annual base salary of $170,000 and also a full benefits package. Formerly the director of the V.I. Public Finance Authority, he had an integral part in getting the V.I. Next Generation Network going before it was official.

The V.I. Next Generation Network, a territorial-owned company created to oversee the construction of a federally funded fiber-optic broadband network, suspended Francis's employment 10 months after hiring him.

The American Arbitration Association determined that V.I. Next Generation Network could not be faulted in his termination, nor did it owe Francis $5 million in defamation damages, $170,000 in severance pay or compensation for other lost benefits.

Francis, the claimant, "engaged actions or omissions which the board, in its sole discretion, reasonably determined caused or were likely to cause economic damage to the respondent, or substantial injury to the respondent's reputation," according to the statement of the arbitrator, Mollie Wagner Neal.

While Neal acknowledged that Francis at various junctures helped the progress of the fiber-optic network expansion - via strategic deals and modifications to those deals - she concluded that the board was justified in terminating Francis.

"He cannot escape responsibility for errors in procurement actions, his failure to submit timely reports under the conditions of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant awards and staffing inadequacies," Neal wrote.

The most egregious error that Francis made was almost losing four federal stimulus grants awarded to the V.I. Next Generation Network in 2010 by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration funded, according to the arbitrator's report.

Plans went amiss when officials from the National Telecommunications and Information Association, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Office of the Inspector General came on-site to check on the status of the broadband project.

The agencies ordered that all work on the project come to a halt after their visit. Officials found various problems with the project, including deficiencies in the financial and procurement management systems, policies and procedures and internal controls.

Officials ordered that the V.I. Next Generation Network produce a corrective action plan within a month to meet grant requirements.

Failure to do so would equate to the loss of the grant funding.

While a corrective action plan was put into place, the board determined at the end of October to fire Francis after he declined to resign.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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