The longstanding feud between Senate President Ronald Russell and the V.I. Daily News over the release of legislative financial data connected to the Inspector General’s 2011 audit will come to a head Tuesday as both parties make their case in Superior Court, and the ruling could greatly impact the public’s and the media’s access to certain government records.
Since December 2011 the Daily News has been seeking fprce the the release of documents detailing cash advances made to senators during the 26th, 27th, 28th, and 29th Legislatures as part of an investigation into the $6.9 million of “questionable” spending reported in the inspector general’s audit. According to the Daily News, Russell had consistently failed to deliver these documents, which led to the paper filing a suit in Superior Court on October 12 to compel their release.
Sen. Russell in turn filed a petition to block the release of the documents, arguing that they were exempt from the territory’s open record law.
The crux of Russell’s argument rests on Title 3 sec 881(g)(13), which states that “all working papers, draft reports and documents containing evidence to support findings, conclusions, and judgments of auditors of the Office of the V.I. Inspector General” were confidential and could be blocked from public inspection unless otherwise ordered by a court or by the person or agency holding those records.
In the hearing Tuesday, Judge Darryl Dean Donohue will be tasked with determining how broad the phrase “documents containing evidence” should be interpreted.
Russell’s petition argues that any document that forms the “raw data” from which an auditor draws their conclusions can be kept confidential. This means that any information, regardless of whether or not it would be open to public inspection otherwise, would become confidential as soon as it is reviewed by the Office of the Inspector General in the course of an investigation.
If Donohue agrees with Russell’s argument, the case could set a precedent for the media and proponents of open government. If all documents used by the inspector general to make a conclusion can be kept confidential, it would become impossible for the public to verify his findings or, as in this case, discover greater detail in areas where the inspector general uses broad or unspecific language.
In the Daily News petition, they speak to this section of the law and argue that the protection only applies to documents directly in the possession of the Office of the Inspector General.
“There is no indication in the statute or otherwise that it was also intended to protect information that is left by the V.I. Inspector General in the hands of the target of that audit or investigation,” they argue.
Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt was reluctant to give an opinion on the issue lest it appear he was taking sides, but he did acknowledge that the law protected documents in the possession of his office.
Asked whether that protection extended to all public documents his office inspects, he replied that he did not know.
“That’s what the lawsuit is about,” he said. “I can’t say whether Russell is right or wrong. I’m not a lawyer. That’s for the courts to decide.”
Russell’s petition also makes two other arguments for withholding the documents.
First, he says he has a “good faith belief” that the release of the information would “irreparably injure an ongoing federal investigation that arose out of the Inspector General’s audit.”
The petition offers no explanation of why Russell and not the federal investigators mentioned is acting to block the release.
Second, Russell argues that the Daily News is not acting in the public’s best interest, but rather to smear his name prior to the election. He characterizes their investigation as a “quest to ‘seek and destroy’” and accuses them of having an “insidious and hidden agenda…to destroy the reputation of a sitting leader.”
In addition to blocking the release of the documents, Russell’s petition asks the court to “direct the Respondent (Daily News) to publish a public apology to the Senate President, publicly retracting the requested confidential information, and admitting its wrongdoing in this matter.”
The hearing will be held at the R.H. Amphlett Leader Justice Center Tuesday at 10 a.m.