Senators keep their spending secret Who can make a public records request Daily News public records requests
Published: August 3, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - For almost eight months, Senate President Ronald Russell, in violation of the territory's open records laws, has not fulfilled a request for public information about senators' travel expenses.
Following the joint audit of the V.I. Legislature by the territorial Office of the Inspector General and the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of the Interior, The Daily News has made the request five times since December.
The joint audit of the 26th, 27th, and 28th Legislatures found "highly questionable practices" and mismanagement of public funds that resulted in more than $6.9 million of lost revenues, unnecessary expenses and unsupported costs.
Typically, Inspector General reports do not include names of people implicated in an audit, but the community - outraged about the audit's findings - immediately called for the names of the offending senators to be released.
To further the public's right to know, The Daily News wrote a letter to Russell requesting a series of documents and paperwork detailing the travel expenses and cash advances made to senators in the 26th, 27th, and 28th Legislatures.
The letter, dated Dec. 14, was hand-delivered to the Senate president at the end of a Senate session Dec. 15.
The Daily News gave him the same letter again on Jan. 23, and a third time on Feb. 6 after Russell still failed to respond to the previous requests.
By phone, Russell confirmed receipt of the Feb. 6 letter.
The letter was sent again July 23, and Russell confirmed receipt via email.
Tuesday, the letter was sent again, and copied to all 15 senators. The Daily News asked for the information to be submitted by close of business Thursday.
Nothing was received.
The Legislature's executive director, Pamela Richards Samuel, sent an email Wednesday stating that Russell had just charged her with filling the request but that she could not meet the deadline because a key person is out of the office until Aug. 20.
The spending of public funds is subject to the territory's open records law and by law is supposed to be available upon request.
According to 3 V.I.C. subsection 881:
"Every citizen of this Territory shall have the right to examine all public records and to copy such records, and the news media may publish such records, unless some other provision of the Code expressly limits such right or requires such records be kept secret or confidential."
None of the documents The Daily News requested from Russell in December are exempt from the requirement that they be made available to the public under the open records law.
Also according to 3 V.I.C. subsection 881, "It shall be unlawful for any person to deny or refuse any citizen of this Territory any
right under this chapter, or to cause any such right to be denied or refused."
After the audit was released in early December, Russell responded a number of days later by saying he was launching his own internal investigation.
Initially, he said he would release the results to the public - including revealing which senators were responsible for the incidents reported in the audit.
In February, Russell reversed his position and said that he would not name names and that senators could voluntarily reveal their own identities.
A week later, he cancelled a press conference at which he was going to reveal the results of his internal investigation - minus the names of senators.
In April, Russell again said he was ready to make his investigation public, but he never did.
Last month, he said outside investigations - both federal and local - were preventing him from releasing the results of his investigation. Russell said the Legislature's legal counsel advised him not to release any information regarding his investigation until the outside investigations have closed.
July 19, Russell issued a statement explaining why he has not released the information promised.
"Since the publication of the audit, the Legislature of the Virgin Islands has been served numerous subpoenas regarding the information, which I initially planned to disclose; however, it has been determined that it is best for the institution not to disclose information outside of the subpoena process or at least until these investigations have been concluded. Currently, there are several ongoing federal and local investigations regarding legislative activities," Russell said. "So let me sincerely apologize to the public for promising to provide names and details regarding some of the deficiency mentioned in the audit."
The joint audit first was requested by Adlah Donastorg Jr., who served as president of the 28th Legislature during its first months. When he was ousted by the Senate Majority in April 2009, Sen. Louis Hill replaced him. Hill renewed the call for the audit when he became president.
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 Barshinger, Donastorg, Carlton Dowe, 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.
The audit's major findings included:
- Payment of cash advances to senators for travel with no verification that the travel actually occurred.
- Awarding bonuses to employees without written standards or justification of such awards.
- Selection, approval and payment of contracts without competition and internal controls, leading to overpayment and no documentation the work had been performed.
- No reporting to the IRS, leading to underpayment of tax receipts to the V.I. government.
- No documentation for sensitive equipment, potentially leading to the equipment being misused, lost or stolen.
The audit details missing money and documentation from one senator's trips to Brazil, Italy and Denmark - all places former Sen. Wayne James publicly admitted to visiting during his time in the 28th Legislature. Hill also visited Italy on a trip with James and a number of legislative staff members.
The audit specifically mentions a "long-term" senator who received nine cash advances totalling more than $25,000 but failed to submit any supporting documentation.
Auditors reviewed 152 payments to 35 vendors that totalled about $1.7 million. Twenty of those vendors received approximately $1.1 million without being under contract or going through a competitive bid process. The audit states that many of the vendors were hand-picked by the executive director. Louis Willis was the executive director of the Legislature at the time, although the audit does not name him.
Between 2005 and 2010, more than $1.5 million in legislative employee bonuses were issued with no written policies and procedures for issuing such bonuses, according to the audit.
Laptops, computers, cameras, printers and other equipment were not properly safeguarded, and the Legislature's inventory lists were found by auditors to be incomplete or inaccurate.
Auditors looked at 120 purchase orders for sensitive equipment. Of the purchases, 49 items could not be located, and of the remaining 71 items, 28 were never inventoried.
Auditors also looked for the 1,206 items that were inventoried and discovered 352 items were missing.
After five written requests and several follow up phone calls, Russell has had almost eight months to respond to The Daily News' request for public records. While he has confirmed the receipt of several of the requests, he has yet to formally respond to the request or give any indication of when it will be provided.
Samuel said Wednesday - the day following the latest request by The Daily News - that she now is compiling the information to satisfy the newspaper's request, but she did not give a time certain for submitting the information. She said a critical staff member needed to fulfill the request is out of the office until Aug. 20 and that she will try to find someone else to help gather the information.
As of press time Thursday, no other indication has been given that the request is being fulfilled and no documents have been released.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every individual, business or group has the right to examine all public records of the V.I. government and to obtain copies of such records. The news media is allowed to publish public records.
According to the V.I. Code, it is a crime for any government entity or elected official to deny or refuse access to public records to any citizen. If convicted, a violator will be guilty of a misdemeanor and punished by a fine of not more than $100, according to V.I. Code.
- Dec. 15 - A letter is hand-delivered to Senate President Ronald Russell. Later, when asked about the status of the public records request, Russell says he "misplaced" the letter.
- Jan. 23 - The letter is faxed and emailed to Russell's office. Later, when asked about the status of the records request, Russell asks for the letter to be resent.
- Feb. 6 - The letter is emailed to Russell's office. By phone, Russell confirms receipt but does not provide documents.
- July 23 - The letter is emailed to Russell directly. He confirms receipt via email but does not provide documents.
- Tuesday - The letter is emailed to Russell - and copied to all members of the 29th Legislature - with a deadline of 5 p.m. Thursday to comply with the request. Pamela Richards Samuel, executive director of the 29th Legislature, on Wednesday informs The Daily News that the deadline will not be met because a key staff member who is needed to fulfill the records request is out of the office until Aug. 20.