Senate will not divulge how much it spent eating out - at taxpayers' expense - during secret budget meetings
Published: October 16, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - Even as the Senate continues its refusal to release public records about the Inspectors General joint audit of the V.I. Legislature, another request for public records has gone ignored since February.
The price tag on a string of Senate meetings that were not open to the public in December 2011 and January 2012 has remained secret as the Legislature has failed to disclose financial records related to the meetings.
The upshot is that the public still has no idea how much, if any, taxpayer money the Senate spent on food, lodging, transportation and per diem allowances for at least a half-dozen meetings from which the public was barred. The Senators met to discuss ideas for solving what was then a $67 million shortfall in the territory's budget. One of the meetings took place at Carambola Beach Resort on St. Croix, and another took place at Walker's by the Sea on St. Thomas, and both included meals.
The Daily News' request for the records, submitted Feb. 6, 2012, to Senate President Ronald Russell under the territory's public records law, asked for "copies of all expenses accrued by or on behalf of the Virgin Islands Legislature in connection with the Senate's closed-door meetings in December 2011 and January 2012."
It is the second request relating to spending by the 29th Legislature to which the Senate has failed to respond for a number of months. Russell only officially acknowledged the Dec. 15 records request pertaining to the Legislature audit in August.
The territory's public records law gives all citizens the right to inspect "all records and documents of or belonging to this Territory or any branch of government in such Territory or any department, board council or committee of any branch of government."
The law includes 14 exceptions to the rule, none of which specifically exempt documents related to spending by the Legislature. The law does not include a time frame in which public agencies must respond to requests from the public, but anyone who knowingly denies or refuses access to public records - or causes that access to be denied or refused - is guilty of a misdemeanor and can be fined up to $100.
The Daily News on Friday filed a motion asking the V.I. Superior Court to compel the Legislature to release the public records the newspaper requested pertaining to the audit of the Legislature.
Russell countered by asking the court to bar the public from viewing those records. He did not return a Daily News call requesting his comment for this story.
Sen. Craig Barshinger was "uninvited" from one of the closed-door meetings in question, at Walker's By the Sea in January 2012. Barshinger - who is not a member of either the Senate majority or the minority caucus - said the failure of the Senate to provide the records requested by The Daily News is just one of several signs that the territory's legislative body has become "marginally functional."
"What I see is just a complete mess," Barshinger said. "I think the Legislature's primary issue at this time is to get re-elected for those who are running, and those who are not running are trying to stay out of jail. I see very little sign of any altruistic function."
Barshinger said he has struggled to get access to Senate records about his own office's spending. He said he requested in writing a statement of his office's budget. After repeatedly checking up on the request at the Senate business office, Barshinger said he went to Russell, who told him, "All you have to do is ask."
As of Monday, Barshinger was still empty-handed.
"I need to report to my constituents about how I've spent their money," he said. "I need to report on my performance."
Diana Lopez, a senior editor of the Sunshine Review, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency, also connected the issue of public access to accountability.
"The Senate needs to see this as a wake-up call," Lopez said in an emailed statement responding to a request for comment on the cash-advance records. "There is an expectation that key records be released in a reasonable and timely manner, especially records that may explain the discrepancies uncovered in the audit. But Senate President Russell has stonewalled The Daily News.
"The chance to release key records is an opportunity to restore the Senate's legitimacy before the citizens of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Instead, the Senate and Senate President are further obscuring public information," Lopez wrote. "Disclosure practices of the Senate are broken - there is no process for ensuring legitimate travel expenses, there is no competition for contractors, and a lack of regulation of public funds in general. Russell and all senators need to live up to their role as public officials and give the public information that rightfully belongs to them."
The Senate had scheduled a Committee of the Whole hearing on the issue of the cash-advance records for Friday. But as of Monday that meeting had been postponed until further notice, according to a Senate schedule posted on the Legislature website, www.legvi.org.
- Contact Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.