Virgin Islands Bounced National Guardsmen’s Paychecks While Using Federal Disaster Money To Pay A DC Lobbying Firm

Jack Crowe | Political Reporter

The Virgin Islands National Guard issued bad pay checks to service members who took part in hurricane disaster recovery operations, according to an internal memo obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The memo, released Monday, expresses regret and instructs soldiers on the receiving end of bad checks to “return the check to their unit with documentation from the financial institution stating the check did not clear, documentation showing any assessed fees, and the financial institution’s contact information.”

The document confirms information provided to TheDCNF by a National Guard Sergeant who served in the hurricane recovery effort in St. Croix, but asked to remain unnamed for fear of retribution.

The sergeant said he personally heard from over 20 soldiers who were issued bad checks after initially receiving no payment at all from early September, when they were placed on territorial active duty, to January, when they began to receive payment.

He explained that the territorial active duty imposed a substantial toll on soldiers because they were prevented from working their normal job but were not receiving payment owed to them by the National Guard after working full-time for three months. Then, once they finally were paid, their paychecks bounced in many cases and, in the case of the unnamed sergeant, the check he eventually received was for less than half of what the National Guard owed him; though TheDCNF was unable to independently confirm this.

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He added that service members who complained about the lack of payment were given no explanation and simply instructed to file for a hardship discharge if they could no longer survive on their savings.

“It’s a disrespect to the service that these guys performed to the territory because as a National Guard soldier. You’re leaving your job with the expectation to be compensated,” he said, adding:

You’re not getting paid, you’re working 18 plus hours. You have to go home to your family with no pay check, it’s a bad deal. Soldiers were forced to come in prior to the hurricanes. They left their wives, their families the night before the storm to come sleep in the armory where they’d be no use to the community.

The treatment his men received violates the military culture, he said.

“I myself and my unit, we could not go and clear the debris off our own property,” he said. “I still have debris on my own property because the opportunity to do that while other soldiers could have helped has passed.”

Eventually, after months of receiving no payment, the chain of command began to break down.

“Soldiers started disobeying orders because you’re not going to pay me and you’re trying to enforce these rules? So soldiers basically started doing their own thing and going home to their families, which I can’t blame them for,” the sergeant said. “The next natural disaster that happens soldiers might not even show up because of what they’re going through here.”

Virgin Islands gubernatorial candidate Soraya Coffelt, an Independent politician, told TheDCNF she heard from five national guardsmen who shared stories similar to that of the unnamed sergeant.

The exact circumstances surrounding the bad paychecks remains unclear, however, the Virgin Islands have been struggled financially in the wake of the 2017 hurricane season.

The territory was issued an $85 million federal loan for disaster recovery efforts, but FEMA halted the remaining $211 million because the agency charged with disbursing the funds, the Public Finance Authority (PFA), failed to meet its obligations under the loan agreement.

The PFA’s inability to meet its obligations may be related to its lack of basic accounting practices, detailed in a September Inspector General report that accuses PFA personnel of an creating an “environment where errors and potential conflicts of interest flourish.”

“These deficiencies contributed to the issues we found during our fieldwork, which included $50 million in financial reporting discrepancies, potential conflicts of interest, and $101.1 million in questionable expenditures,” the report reads.

Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp, an Independent, insisted the weaknesses identified in the report have been addressed and said he has no concerns about the agency’s ability to disperse federal money going forward.

The PFA recently executed $100 million in no-bid contracts — roughly $35 million is going to Ernst & Young for accounting services. Another $235,000 will go to a Washington lobbying firm that employs former House Speaker John Boehner, an expense Mapp said is justified because the territory must compete for resources and attention on Capitol Hill.

Mapp’s administration has also been criticized for allocating some undisclosed portion of the federal disaster money to reimburse local radio stations for the fuel they used to extend their broadcasts during the storm. The federal money the stations receive will amount to a fraction of what they spent on fuel to broadcast during the storm, Mapp claims; however, TheDCNF was unable to confirm this claim.

“That’s ridiculous,” Mapp replied, when asked to respond to charges that the election-year-radio-station-reimbursement was politically motivated.

“Folks are going to complain because they say it’s a campaign year. There are radio stations that received iterations fo funding that the talk show hosts on those stations lambaste the administration every day but I’m not concerned about that,” Mapp told TheDCNF.

Mapp’s administration also recently announced they are partnering with the Clinton Foundation in disaster recovery efforts. When asked if he had concerns about the Clinton Foundation’s documented history of questionable accounting practices, Mapp said ‘no,’ insisting the foundation would not be involved in the allocation of any federal funds.

“They’re not handling funds for us. The Clinton Foundation has done a lot of good,” he said.

The credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded Virgin Island government debt in early February, claiming it is “highly likely” the territory will be unable to meet its obligations. The  pension system is likely to collapse “much sooner” than 2023, according to the agency.

The Virgin Islands National Guard press office did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment.

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