April 9, 2003 – The secret settlement agreement between the V.I. government and Southland Gaming will see the light by Monday if the Senate Government Operations Committee has its way.
The committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to subpoena the agreement after Attorney General Iver Stridiron refused to make it available voluntarily.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg asked Stridiron on Wednesday to produce the settlement agreement so the senators can review it before a bill to repeal the legalization of video lottery operations comes to vote in a full Senate session set for April 14-15. While no agenda has been announced for the full session, it is widely believed that the VLT repeal bill will be taken up then.
Stridiron simply replied: "It shall be disclosed." Further pressed by Donastorg, he said he would not forward the document before the Senate session. "I strongly request that should happen after you have met in formal session," the attorney general said
Donastorg then stated to his colleagues: "You heard what he said; we're being asked as a responsible institution to make a decision which may be critical on whether we should go forward. It lets the onus fall on this institution. It puts the cart before the horse."
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the Government Operations Committee chair, agreed. "I don't like to make decisions without information," he told Stridiron. "I'm asking you to supply this committee with a copy of the agreement. The issue is coming up before us on the 15th, I think, and we don't want to be left guessing. I respectfully ask that you submit the document to this committee."
Stridiron replied, "I must respectfully decline to voluntarily turn over the document. If the Legislature wishes to do something else, then, certainly, I'll comply."
With that, Malone asked his committee for a motion to subpoena the agreement. Sen. Celestino A. White moved that the document be made available to the committee, but without stating a deadline. After some jockeying about a date, Sen. Emmett Hansen II said, "It is my belief that we have to allow 72 hours for delivery of any documents to the Legislature."
The motion was amended calling for the document to be delivered to Malone's office no later than 5 p.m. Monday. Legal counsel Yvonne Tharpes later confirmed that there is a 72-hour time period for parties to supply subpoenaed documents.
Southland Gaming was awarded a contract by the V.I. Lottery in 1998 to distribute video lottery terminals if and when video lottery gaming became legal in the territory. It became legal in the St. Thomas-St. John district last Dec. 23, when the 24th Legislature overturned the governor's months-earlier veto of such legislation — his third such veto in two years.
Southland proceeded to install VLT's at three St. Thomas venues — Bluebeard's Castle Hotel, The Old Mill and the Caribbean Saloon in Red Hook — and was reported to have been planning to set up as many as a hundred more at Wyndham Sugar Bay Beach Resort.
Meanwhile, mounting protests against the legalization of VLT's, especially on St. Croix, where the machines are widely viewed as competition for the island's casino gambling, put pressure on politicians to take action. As questions were raised about the legitimacy of Southland's contract and its qualifications to do business in the Virgin Islands, the company went to court, asking that its contract be declared valid. The Turnbull administration countersued, seeking to have the contract voided.
On March 20, the government and Southland reached an out-of-court settlement, which they agreed to keep secret, asking Territorial Judge I've Swan to seal the documents as well as to dismiss their lawsuits. Swan subsequently returned the documents, saying the settlement was not a court matter. Thus, they have not been sealed by court order.
No details have been released about the settlement. Lawyers for both sides have remained tight-lipped, with Stridiron saying that the documents were closed "so as not to influence the Legislature one way or the other."
Last Thursday, Stridiron told the Senate Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee that resolution of the controversy over video gaming — and thus, the fate of the VLT machines — lies in the Legislature's hands. Senators expressed confusion as to what he meant. (See "Attorney general: Fate of VLT's up to Senate now".)
At that hearing, the only information Stridiron offered was: "I can say that no money changed hands, and the machines aren't working. The judge has dismissed the case. We hope the Legislature will take the definitive step." He also said that, as of that time, "no machines are in operation."
The VLT issue has dominated headlines since the 24th Legislature overrode Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's veto in its last, and now notorious, lame-duck session. The most recent objection came from the League of Women Voters on Monday. The organization wrote to Senate President David Jones pleading for passage of the bill introduced in January repealing the law legalizing video lottery operations.
Jones, an outspoken supporter of VLT's, held Committee of the Whole hearings March 13 on St. Croix and March 14 on St. Thomas on video lottery issues but has yet to announce any scheduled action on the repeal bill itself.
Southland, meanwhile, set up demonstration VLT's at the Clinton E. Phipps Racetrack on March 30, where a petition was circulated seeking signatures in support of video lottery gaming. A representative said nearly 600 people there signed the petition.
What effect the subpoena approved Wednesday will have remains to be seen. The Finance Committee three weeks ago subpoenaed documents from the V.I. Lottery Office for an audit it is conducting. To date, the committee has received nothing. (See "V. I. Lottery ignoring subpoenas, senator says".)
Addressing unconfirmed reports that had been circulating, Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards asked Stridiron on Wednesday if there is anything in the agreement stipulating that it must be acted upon before April 11, or the parties would be required to renegotiate. Richards asked him twice, and Stridiron both times replied "no."
Committee members voting for the subpoena on Wednesday were Sens. Douglas Canton, Hansen, Louis Hill, Malone and White. The other two committee members, Sens. Lorraine Berry and Carlton Dowe, were absent for the vote.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.