Rules Committee holds bill making government settlements public record


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ST. THOMAS - A bill to make public any settled claims or financial settlements involving the V.I. government was heard but held in the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for further amendments.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, would prevent non-disclosure agreements from blocking the public's right to know how taxpayer dollars are spent to settle legal claims involving the government.

"Confidentiality prevents transparency," Rivera-O'Reilly said. "Settlements that are paid to individuals who sue the government are paid with taxpayer dollars. And therefore I think that we have a responsibility to ensure that those who pay taxes know how their funds are being devised."

It would apply to all branches of government, including autonomous and semi-autonomous agencies, forcing them to maintain a record of all settled claims. Under the bill, the public record must include a brief description of the claim, the party or parties involved and the amount of compensation paid by or to the government.

Exemptions under the proposed law include school records; medical records; unpublished academic or scientific research; working documents in preparation for litigation; law enforcement investigative records; property appraisals prior to a sale; an individual's library activity; documents or records regarding performance of senators; the location of protected archaeological or historic sites; private donors of artifacts given to the government; job application materials by applicants other than finalists; Social Security numbers; credit card numbers; and local account numbers.

V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer said the bill would conflict with federal income tax law for claims that arise out of tax liabilities, take away the government's negotiating power and discourage settlement agreements.

Frazer said his office should be given the power to determine what settlements would be disclosed for the public's interest and what should be withheld to protect the government's interest.

Kye Walker of the V.I. Bar Association said she supported a version of the measure that she had submitted to the committee.

"The bill in its current form may have a chilling effect on government service as it would require the publication of the names of government officials and employees even if those individuals are sued in their professional capacities only as representatives of a particular agency," Walker said.

Instead of names, settlements involving government officials or employees should only identify the government department or agency that employed that person.

Rivera-O'Reilly said she would add Walker's suggestion to an amendment she is working on.

The committee members present voted unanimously to hold the bill in committee to make further changes.

The committee also considered and passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Sammuel Sanes, to designate the month of October as "Disability History Month."

Committee members present included Senators Donald Cole, Myron Jackson, Shawn-Michael Malone, Janette Millin-Young and Sanes.

Senators Diane Capehart and Kenneth Gittens were absent.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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