Frazer defends $12.7M budget before Senate


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ST. THOMAS - V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer appeared before the Senate Finance Committee on Monday to defend a Fiscal Year 2015 General Fund budget request of $12.7 million that would be used to open a new forensics laboratory, investigate new cases and prosecute current ones under the V.I. Department of Justice.

Senators expressed concerns about the Attorney General's Office's handling of an influx in domestic violence cases, a lack of leadership in the office's Civil Rights Commission and also timeliness in the transportation of bodies from the morgue on St. John.

While Frazer looked fondly back at years during which he felt that his department was better equipped for such issues, he said that the department would continue to pursue justice on behalf of the people.

In addition to the General Fund request, the department budgeted $270,000 in local funding and $6.3 million in federal funding - which Frazer said will fund some of the department's most critical programs, including sex offender monitoring and domestic violence training for prosecutors - during Fiscal Year 2015.

Manpower issues

The V.I. Department of Justice employs 147 employees, with Frazer being the paid the highest salary at $120,000 each year. Assistant attorneys general make between $77,500 and $116,100.

In the St. Thomas-St. John District, 11 prosecutors currently are employed, and 12 are on St. Croix.

Of those prosecutors, one in each district is assigned primarily to white collar and public corruption crimes, and one in each district is assigned to major violent crimes, including homicides.

With that said, all of the assistant attorneys general are expected to be able to prosecute any kind of case that comes into the Attorney General's Office, according to Frazer.

In fact, the department is hoping to train all of its prosecutors to specialize in domestic violence cases, which make up a quarter of the office's cases, Frazer said.

In the past, the department employed a prosecutor who solely closed cases of domestic violence, a position funded by a $147,000 federal sub-grant, the Stop Violence Against Women Act grant, administered through Law Enforcement Planning Commission.

"There's so much of those cases, it's spilled over," Frazer said, noting that the department needs more than one prosecutor for domestic violence.

Instead of pooling the money into one position, the department instead is spending it on training for all of the attorneys, so that each can competently take on a domestic violence case, which requires a knowledge of special case law and also a sensitivity to the content of the case.

"Sometimes you even have to try a case without the victim," Frazer said.

Criminal cases

In all, the criminal division during Fiscal Year 2014 has seen 245 new cases in the St. Thomas-St. John District so far, which Frazer said is a reduction from previous years.

Of the new cases, 109 are misdemeanors; 85 are felonies; and 51 are juvenile.

In the St. Croix District, the division has seen 230 new cases in FY 2014, of which 100 are misdemeanors; 80 are felonies; and 50 are juvenile.

Senators Myron Jackson and Judi Buckley expressed concern that the department does not have the resources to handle the amount of domestic violence cases that are flooding into the office.

"We are losing women in our society - our mothers, our daughter, our sisters," Jackson said.

Crimes that are on the rise, other than domestic violence, are property and gun-possession crimes, the latter of which has fostered a close relationship with federal authorities, Frazer said. Still, the V.I. Justice Department is fully capable of handling the load of criminal cases that it is taking on, he said.

However, the department does need more attorneys for the civil and general cases, according to Frazer.

V.I. government cases

For example, in cases in which the office is representing the V.I. government's executive branch agencies, boards and commissions, the office could use another nine or 10 attorneys, Frazer said.

"Over the years that I have served as attorney general, I have expressed dissatisfaction with the number of cases in which the government has initiated legal actions of a civil nature. The main reason for that situation is the fact that we need more lawyers to enable the government to initiate legal action whenever necessary," Frazer said.

In 2013, the lawyers covered 215 new cases - some filed by and others filed against the government - and thus far have had to cover another 141 new cases this year, according to Frazer.

"The number of cases that filed against the government keeps the civil division lawyers very busy," he said.

The department also is short-staffed when it comes to tax evasion cases, for which the department created a Tax Collection Task Force, which consists solely of Frazer; the Director of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Claudette Watson-Anderson; and a single investigator.

"The Tax Collection Task Force has not been as successful as we had hoped," Frazer said, noting that if it were completely successful it could gather enough money to squash the territory's entire budget deficit, and then some.

While Frazer lauded that the task force is "alive and well," he also said that it is temporarily halted because the investigator has been on leave for several weeks. The task force is expected to resume by the month's end, Frazer said.

Civil Rights Commission

For years, the Civil Rights Commission - which falls under the administrative and budgetary oversight of the V.I. Justice Department - has been a "ship without a captain," as Sen. Clifford Graham, chairman of the Finance Committee, said during Monday's budget hearing.

Senators were appalled to find that the commission, which employs an office manager on St. Croix and an investigator on St. Thomas, has been without an executive director since 2011, and without a quorum on its board since 2006. Without a quorum, the board cannot choose a director.

The board currently has three members, though it is the governor's responsibility to appoint board members.

"It seems to me to be very dysfunctional. We cannot attempt to operate in such a dysfunctional state," Jackson said.

According to one of two employees working for the commission, it has had its hands tied, unable to enforce and create policy, when it comes to the resolution of hundreds of cases.

Investigator Rudisha Rabsatt said that she has acted as the director to the best of her ability since 2011, looking into all of the cases in the St. Thomas-St. John District.

Currently, 700 cases are live in the district, dating back to 1987. This year alone, 46 new cases were opened.

Rabsatt said she could not speak for the number of cases open in St. Croix, and she noted that the commission only had been notified Monday of the department's budget hearing.

The Civil Rights Commission in the St. Croix District is overseen by a single office manager, Rasbatt said.

Frazer admitted that he is well-aware of the situation, and that he had spoken with Gov. John deJongh Jr. several times about the ongoing issue, though he could not recall the last time he spoke with the governor about it.

"The Civil Rights Commission needs to be revamped," Frazer said.

One of the qualms he has is that the board members are appointed for life, he said, and it is the only board in the territory that maintains such a policy.

"There is something wrong with that. They just sit there," he said.

Senators asked that the department take more of an initiative to reform the commission.

Forensic laboratory

The V.I. Justice Department, which currently operates from four locations split between the St. Thomas and St. Croix Districts, is expected to open a forensic laboratory, from which the department could perform laboratory and ballistic data tests.

Currently, the territory spends about $15,000 annually to send a chemist to Puerto Rico bi-monthly to spend a week conducting drug analysis.

An annual grant - projected to be $63,517 in FY 2015 - has been helping the department collect lab equipment in recent years.

The grant in 2015, though, is going to go toward the $22,000 annual lease of a lab on St. Croix. The V.I. Police Department will cover the remainder of the $40,000 lease, Frazer said.

The Justice Department already has signed the lease, according to Frazer, and the department is in the process of retrofitting the location.

Though the lab will not be prepared to conduct all testing immediately, it should be qualified within a year or so, Frazer said.

Medical examiners

Frazer also addressed the challenges of the V.I. Medical Examiner's Office, which is led by one part-time forensic pathologist, Dr. Francisco Landron.

The office has been seeking to recruit a second forensic pathologist, but the $175,000 annual salary is low compared with the national average, according to Frazer.

The office also has a death investigator, an administrative assistant and two technicians who help to retrieve bodies.

This year, the office has reviewed 164 cases and has performed 89 autopsies as part of those cases.

One of the forefront issues of the Medical Examiner's Office has been the transport of bodies from St. John.

The morgue on St. John, which is located at the Myrah Keating Clinic in Cruz Bay, can only store two bodies at one time.

During times when a barge or a ferry is not running, clinic staff sometimes are forced to store more bodies than they have the capacity for, Frazer said.

The Justice Department has been meeting with emergency response officials from the V.I. Police Department, V.I. Fire Service, the National Park Service, St. Thomas and St. John Rescue and the local hospitals to brainstorm solutions to this problem, Frazer said.

In the short-term, the different agencies have volunteered to help with transporting the bodies when they are able. St. John Rescue in particular stepped up to form a contract with the department to ensure that the morgue would not be above capacity in times when the barges and ferries are not operating.

In the long-term, the department hopes to open a separate office that will increase the territory's capacity.

Currently, both Luis and Schneider hospitals each have a capacity to store two dozen bodies.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi. ST. THOMAS - The Senate Finance Committee hearing Monday about the V.I. Justice Department's Fiscal Year 2015 budget, senators expressed concern that federal funds awarded to the V.I. Justice Department's paternity and child support program were not used as they should be and, in some case, not used at all.

The Justice Department forfeited a $100,000 grant in FY 2013 that would have helped non-custodial parents, primarily fathers, spend more time with their children through the department's paternity program.

V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer said that the program returned the $100,000 to the federal government in 2013 - though it did not this year, nor does it expect to next fiscal year - because it was having trouble securing contracts with local organizations.

The grant, called the State Access and Visitation Grant, will fund mediation, developing parent plans, counseling, parent education, neutral drop-offs and pick-ups, supervised visitation and visitation enforcement.

To use the federal grant, the territory's program is required to form contracts with local organizations that will execute these duties or assist the department in doing so.

"We have had difficulties in getting contracts in place," said Frazer, who answered a query about the grant from Sen. Judi Buckley. At the time, the department was worried that, if it spent the money without properly getting the contracts into place in a timely fashion, the department would be in violation, the attorney general said.

The department this year has secured contracts to use the grant, according to Frazer, though he did not specify what groups the contracts are with or for what specifically the funds will being used.

Senators also asked about the status of the program's unclaimed child support monies, which the department places in a bank fund that it cannot collect interest on.

The department currently is holding on to about $1 million, of which $400,000 is the result of not being able to find a current address or contact for the intended recipient, according to Terrence Joseph, director of the Paternity and Child Support Division.

The money goes into a bank account under the Justice Department, though the V.I. Code has no policy as to how long the department is supposed to keep it or what it is supposed to do with it after a certain period of time. The federal government has provided little guidance on the matter, Joseph said.

However, the division is about to undergo major changes in the matter of uncollected child support because of a federal mandate, Joseph said.

The division, which receives 66 percent of its funding from the federal government and 34 percent by the V.I. government, will be required to spend more money to collect child support and to seek out those who are supposed to receive it.

In the last year alone, the division has been responsible for the collection and distribution of $6 million related to more than 7,900 open cases, according to Frazer.

In an effort to meet the new federal requirements, the division intends to streamline the collection process by offering debit cards to involved parties, to enable electronic payments, Frazer said. This would require the use of a new system, one more modern than the current CSTARS system.

During the budget hearing, Frazer noted that the division would need $170,000 immediately for a feasibility study, cost benefit analysis and an analysis of alternatives. In the next fiscal year, it likely will need about $578,000 in General Fund money to begin the first phase of the "modernization effort," which is hoped to result in more child support collected and better tracking of the custodial and non-custodial parties.

In total, Frazer estimated that the territory would spend about $5 million before the division is completely updated to meet federal mandates.

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

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