Russell, Daily News present their cases in court
Published: October 24, 2012
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. CROIX - Not much was resolved Tuesday when The Daily News and Senate President Ronald Russell appeared in V.I. Superior Court with Russell expected to give his reasoning for withholding public documents relating to $6.9 million of lost revenue, unnecessary expenses and unsupported costs uncovered in a joint Inspectors General audit of the V.I. Legislature.
After brief statements Tuesday morning and almost an hour of discussions in his chambers, V.I. Superior Court Presiding Judge Darryl Donohue gave both parties until Thursday to file motions addressing whether documents being used in an ongoing investigation should be withheld from the public.
The joint audit by the V.I. Inspector General's Office and the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of the Interior was released in December.
Since then, Russell has cited ongoing federal and local investigations as reasons for not revealing which senators are referred to in the audit, and his complaint filed with the court is based on a similar argument.
Donohue said he would reconvene the hearing at 10 a.m. Friday in his courtroom to hear further arguments in the case.
At the start of Tuesday's hearing, Donohoue expressed concern about Russell's authorization to represent the 29th Legislature in the matter. The judge said he did not think that Russell, although he is a practicing attorney in the territory, is authorized to represent the branch of government.
If the Daily News opts to call Russell as a witness in the case, there would be no way for the Legislature to cross-examine him if he acts as their attorney, Donohue pointed out.
Russell said he is an officer of the court and allowed to act in the capacity of the Legislature's legal counsel. He said the Legislature did not hire an attorney because of the sensitivity of the issues and ongoing investigations.
"We don't have the money right now to hire an attorney, and our legal counsel is not aware of the issues that are involved," he said. "This isn't that difficult. It is a straightforward legal issue."
Russell said he is the person who is most knowledgeable of all of the information involved, and nothing prevents him from acting as legal counsel.
The Daily News' attorney, Kevin Rames, said there is nothing on the record noting that Russell is designated to prosecute or defend on behalf of the Legislature.
"We have questions as to whether there is a resolution where he is designated," Rames said.
Russell then argued that he could move to ask the court to make a ruling without hearing arguments and proceed based on the documents filed in the complaints. He said he didn't think there would be a need for testimony and witnesses, which would provide information that was irrelevant to the law.
Donohue said that if both sides would agree to stipulations about which documents would be presented into evidence, the case could proceed through only oral arguments, without a need for testimony.
The attorneys then met in the judge's chambers for close to an hour. When they emerged, they had agreed to file the stipulated documents jointly as an appendix to their separate motions discussing their positions on documents being subject to the open records act if they are a part of an ongoing investigation.
It has been 11 months since The Daily News first requested a series of public documents relating to the expenses and cash advances for senators in the 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th legislatures.
The request was made shortly after the release of the joint audit, which described "highly questionable practices" involving the management of public funds that resulted in more than $6.9 million of lost revenue, unnecessary expenses and unsupported costs.
To date, no information has been provided by the Legislature.
On Oct. 12, The Daily News filed a complaint in Superior Court on St. Croix asking the court to force Russell to release the documents.
Russell responded by filing his own complaint, a petition to restrain examination of records by The Daily News.
On Thursday, Donohue issued an order consolidating both complaints into one evidentiary hearing.
In his order, Donohue said both complaints arise out of the same issue - the right to examine "possibly confidential" documents related to "possible cash advances" by the V.I. Legislature.
A memorandum in support of The Daily News' case written by Rames outlines the newspaper's argument that "there is no legally cognizable basis" for the Senate to withhold the documents.
Russell's argument is that because the information was used in the audit, the information should be withheld from the public.
The audit looked at the 26th, 27th and 28th Legislatures, although most of the findings focused on the 28th Legislature.
Senators in the 28th Legislature were Craig Barshinger, Adlah Donastorg Jr., Carlton Dowe, Louis Hill, Neville James, Wayne James, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence Nelson, Usie Richards, Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, Sammuel Sanes, Patrick Simeon Sprauve, Michael Thurland, Celestino White Sr. and Alvin Williams Jr.
- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email email@example.com.