The V.I. Legislature is considering its next move after an appeals court reversed a ruling the West Indian Co. Ltd. cited to justify not complying with the Legislature’s request for documents about its decision to pay the governor’s rent, according to Senate President Neville James.
"We are actually in the process of making a final decision right now, so we will be issuing something publicly by the end of the week and at that point everyone will know our next course of action," James said.
At question is whether the Legislature and the public have a right to see records of WICO board member’s discussions before deciding to rent a $12,000 per month villa for Gov. Kenneth Mapp.
James sent WICO a request June 18 asking for the orders and all the minutes from WICO’s board meetings where WICO considered and approved renting Villa Fratelli Cresta on Mapp’s behalf.
At a July 9 Committee of the Whole hearing on WICO’s controversial decision to pay the governor’s rent, WICO President Joseph Boschulte submitted testimony refusing to turn over its records, asserting it is not required to do so under V.I. law requiring open records of government agencies because the government-owned entity is not "a purely public entity."
Boschulte cited the federal civil suit Sprauve v. West Indian Co. Ltd., in which U.S. District Court for the Virgin Islands had earlier found "WICO employees are not ‘public employees’" for the purpose of federal labor law. Boschulte highlighted text from the decision that says, "additionally, as WICO is not a purely public entity, it will not be deemed a ‘public corporation.’"
Boschulte quoted the V.I. Public Records Act to senators, which says ""public records" includes all records and documents of or belonging to this territory or branch of government in such territory or any department, board, council or committee of any branch of government." He emphasized the final phrase "any branch of government," by putting it in bold and cited the court case’s conclusion that WICO employees are not government employees. (See Related Links below)
James and other senators expressed frustration at the lack of responsiveness, and that they were frustrated that Mapp’s chief of staff, Randall Knight, who also chairs the WICO board, was not present at the hearing. Since then, Knight has informed the Senate he will appear, James said Wednesday.
The Third Circuit appellate decision upholds part of the lower court’s ruling but specifically overturns the portion that determined WICO was not a part of the government.
"Because WICO was established as a government corporation pursuant to a special act of the Virgin Islands Legislature to further government objectives, and WICO is permanently and completely controlled by government appointees, it is part of the government for purposes of the constitutional claims and section 1983 claims brought by Sprauve and Smith," the court wrote in the precedential opinion. [WICO Appellate Opinion]
James would not say what the Legislature planned to do, but suggested both that WICO’s justification for not turning over the information no longer held water, and that the issue may be cleared up without more controversy or drama.
"Clearly the Third Circuit ruling throws their position pretty much up the river," James said Wednesday. "Clearly they felt they had a legal right to withhold documents because they had a District Court ruling in their favor, but that has been taken to a higher level and we will do what we have to do," he continued. "By Friday we should have something pretty final with respect to that," he said.
With Knight agreeing to come testify, James said he hoped the remaining questions about the controversial decision can be cleared up and the matter put to rest.
"There is no need to be acrimonious if he is doing the right thing," James said.