During Thursday’s Rules and Judiciary Committee hearing, Department of Agriculture Commissioner Positive Nelson’s nomination to sit on the Virgin Islands Cannabis Advisory Board stalled because the committee deemed it a possible conflict of interest.
Senators asked if Nelson would be eligible to serve on the Cannabis Advisory Board since he had served as a member of the Legislature when law pertaining to the advisory board was passed, and it has not yet been a year.
Legal counsel said the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands states that “no member of the Legislature shall hold or be appointed to any office which has been created by the Legislature,” during the term for which they are elected or one year after the expiration of such a term.
“The issue here in my opinion is whether the appointment of ‘any office’ can be interpreted broad enough to include a former senator being a member of a board or commission,” legal counsel said, adding that it seems the primary intent of the provision is to prevent members of the Legislature from deriving monetary benefit from legislation that they had some hand in within a year of leaving office.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw asked Nelson if this issue was ever discussed by Government House when his nomination was made and if there was a $75 stipend given to the Cannabis Advisory Board members.
“I don’t know because it was not brought to my attention, but what I can clarify for you having been in the Legislature when that was passed, was to prevent a former senator from enriching themselves through legislation that they passed. Any government employee who sits on any board does not receive a stipend, private sector or private employees do. So, whether it is this board or any board a government employee, which I am, does not get any stipend,” Nelson said.
Nelson also raised the point that if that was how the law was to be interpreted then he wouldn’t have been permitted to serve as commissioner of Agriculture either.
Sarauw then questioned whether Nelson would be permitted to own a dispensary or cannabis farm. Nelson said the law doesn’t speak to that nor prohibit it.
“What we are discussing here is that you could be a board member, and then the law is silent on whether or not you can still take part in the industry, and that would be a term of enriching ones self,” Sarauw said.
Nelson argued that America has a free enterprise economy and that a conflict of interest is not constant. “It can exist at times and when it does one has to disclose such,” he said.
He added that other board members could also find themselves with a conflict of interest for a time.
Sarauw continued probing, asking Nelson if he thought the law should be strengthened to ensure there isn’t an ethical dilemma for board members.
Nelson only responded that he wasn’t sure how lawmakers would word the language of the legislation and that they “may just end up shooting ourselves in the foot, because it is such a small economy.”
Nelson said currently he has no interest in obtaining a license to operate a cannabis dispensary but was more concerned with the idea that he may not be permitted to serve on the advisory board because of his prior involvement in the Legislature. He added he thought the discussion should have been had internally and the concern should have been raised earlier and that this was the first he had heard such concerns being raised.
Ultimately the Rules and Judiciary Committee decided to hold Nelson’s nomination for further review. Another Cannabis Advisory Board nominee, Dr. Nicole Craigwell-Syms, saw her nomination move favorably and moves on to the Committee of the Whole for final review.
Rules and Judiciary OK’s Five Bills
In addition to receiving testimony from the Cannabis Advisory Board nominees, the Rules and Judiciary Committee moved five bills forward to the whole Senate on Thursday.
A bill regarding the Virgin Islands Horse Racing Commission was voted on favorably and if enacted would establish district requirements for the chairman and vice chairman, set required meeting frequencies and institute a due date for an annual franchisee fee which would be due and payable the last day of each calendar year.
The committee also voted favorably to move forward two separate agriculture bills. One bill would expand the definition of farming by adding current industry definitions, which the bill reads have not been revised since 2006.
The other agriculture bill will allot a percentage of the government’s local funds budget to the Department of Agriculture to support farming initiatives.The bill reads the “funding shall be on a sliding scale as follows: in years one, two and three one quarter of a percentage will be earmarked; in years four and five, one half of a percentage shall be earmarked; and every successive year thereafter, one percent shall be earmarked. If enacted the bill will take effect in fiscal year 2020.”
Additional bills, allowing for vehicles to be transferred to a named beneficiary if the original owner is deceased and tasking the Virgin Islands Tax Study Commission to review current laws and tax structure, also moved forward.