The V.I. government took its growing lack of transparency to new heights this week, sending police to arrest and criminally charge a reporter for embarrassing it by reporting on its lack of care for priceless antiques in Government House on St. Thomas.
This is a corrupt abuse of government power to punish critics and the charges should be dropped immediately.
The territory has a history and pattern of reflexive secretiveness, marked by efforts to punish those who embarrass V.I. public officials. This is shameful and should be left in the past.
The V.I. Daily News reported earlier this week that Government House on St. Thomas lay open and unlocked, with artwork and antiques sitting in unsafe, unsecure conditions. Acting on a tip, after tourists entered the building and took pictures, the Daily News went to the public building, knocked on the door, called out, and then looked around and took a few photos.
“No guard was posted at the door, which was unlocked, and no one responded when a Daily News reporter knocked loudly a number of times,” Brian O’Connor wrote.
In response, Government House issued a statement saying Director of the Government House Executive Security Unit Gregory Bennerson filed a police report “after maintenance personnel noted that a window and door had been tampered with” and police were investigating “possible criminal trespassing.”
The Daily News reported Thursday the reporters were turning themselves in for arrest and that VIPD officials indicated they intended to press criminal charges.
It is telling that the embarrassed Bennerson is not trying to arrest the tourists who took photos – only the reporters who embarrassed him. Equally telling is the astonishing coincidence that the unnamed “maintenance personnel” did not report anything had been “tampered with” after tourists wandered around the building taking pictures.
Instead, by a wildly improbable coincidence, the maintenance personnel apparently saw the tampering and rushed to Bennerson’s office to report it immediately after the Daily News called Government House and the VIPD to ask why the building was unlocked and had no security present.
For those reasons, Bennerson’s account is not credible. But just as a mental exercise, pretend to take it at its face value anyway. The Daily News reported the door was unlocked. They reported they checked because of a tip and because tourists had already walked through, taking pictures. So there is literally no reason to think the reporter is the one who allegedly “tampered” with a window and a door and every reason to believe any tampering happened before then.
A person who was actually interested in finding out what happened would just interview the reporter to try to find out more about how he or she learned the building was wide open. Bennerson clearly is not doing that. He was in charge of security at Government House and a reporter embarrassed him, making it public that he had failed at his job. He is abusing his position as a peace officer to punish the reporter with false criminal charges for the offense of embarrassing him.
Bennerson is not the only one at fault here. What is the Police Department doing acting on his complaint and actually making an arrest? Shame on you Commissioner Delroy Richards for allowing that to happen on your watch. Can you really pretend this is normal V.I. police procedure? And Government House. Gov. Kenneth Mapp is out of the territory. He may have authorized this but it is possible he is not involved in this at all.
Imagine owning a business on St. Thomas – a private business, mind you, not a public building like Government House – and having someone open a door you left unlocked, and walk in. Then they leave, breaking nothing, taking nothing, and their next move is to call you up and tell you hey, you’re door is unlocked and your business is not secure. Would you call the police and charge the person with trespassing? Do you honestly think the V.I. police would take you seriously if you did? Do you believe they would go and arrest the person who called you and told you that your business was unlocked?
Government House, the V.I. Police Department and Bennerson would have you believe they would.
This is hardly the first time V.I. government officials have retaliated against reporters for embarrassing them. Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen sued over negative reporting of federal public corruption charges against her. Former Sen. Adlah “Foncie” Donastorg sued over negative reporting on his finances. Retired V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall sued over being embarrassed by reports of his actions as a judge. All of these cases ultimately failed. Libel suits brought by public officials against newspapers are rare and rarely successful since the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
In that case, the New York Times was sued for defamation for factual errors in its negative coverage of the Alabama police’s treatment of Martin Luther King. The court established that in order to collect damages a public official must prove “actual malice,” as well as either knowledge that what was printed was false or a complete disregard to its truth or falsity.
The reason for this is obvious: The First Amendment provides for freedom of the press because people need to be able to criticize public officials without fear of retribution by those public officials. Otherwise, corrupt officials will forcibly silence critics and democracy will die in the dark.
Those suits were all blatantly frivolous. They should never have been brought in the first place. Courts should have dismissed them immediately. Yet local courts took them seriously. V.I. Superior Court even convicted a reporter in the Kendall case before a higher court overturned the atrocious verdict.
This trespassing case will no doubt be tossed out too, eventually. But the reporter should not be facing charges to begin with. V.I. public officials are too ready to try to punish those who criticize or embarrass them and their abuse is too readily tolerated and accepted as somehow normal.
President Donald Trump recently said he would “take a strong look” at changing libel laws, because he is embarrassed by a recent book. Those comments have been widely mocked for showing a profound lack of understanding of the law. Even so, Trump clearly understands he cannot actually sue his critics for libel. Since becoming a candidate for president he has threatened to sue critics several times but never did, because he or his lawyers understand he could never win.
USVI public officials such as Hansen, Kendall and Donastorg should strive to someday reach Trump’s level of legal knowledge. Kendall was a judge for goodness sake. Donastorg held and Hansen still holds the sacred responsibility of writing new law. It would be nice if they had a basic understanding of the law and what a free press means.
Meanwhile, these bogus, retaliatory criminal charges should be dropped immediately, before a judge ever has to weigh in. Bennerson should apologize and consider resigning, for first failing at his job and then abusing his power and abusing the public trust to cover for his failure. Police Commissioner Delroy Richards should apologize for allowing his officers to make a false and plainly unjustified arrest. Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter should apologize for allowing Bennerson to proceed with these charges. Mapp should apologize for the actions of so many of his subordinates.
This sort of abuse of power should not be repeated.
V.I. Police Department spokesman Glen Dratte responded to a request for comment Thursday, saying he had been traveling and did not have information on the situation. Texts and emails to Justice Department and Government House spokespeople for comment on the criminal charges had not been returned as of 8 p.m. Thursday.
*Update* The V.I. Daily News reports that after informing them an arrest would be made, the police quickly let the reporter go, without charges and without explanation, Thursday.