The elections supervisor and the law she broke Fawkes destroys public documents


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Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes admits shredding police records - which are public records under the V.I. Code - submitted by the territory's political candidates as part of their nomination packets to run for public office.

While Fawkes maintains that she did nothing wrong, officials from the territory's boards of Elections said they never directed Fawkes to require the police record checks as part of the nomination process nor did they tell her to return or destroy the documents.

Under the V.I. Code, willfully destroying public records is illegal.

Daily News legal counsel Kevin Rames said Fawkes actions constitute a criminal act and undermine the public's trust in the government and the election process.

"The Supervisor's actions constitute a breach of trust, a breach of ethics and a violation of the Open Records Act," he said. "One wonders whom the Supervisor believes she represents? These types of actions diminish both the Office of the Supervisor of Elections and the trust of the people in our government."

A new procedure

The supervisor required all political aspirants to turn in a criminal background check obtained from the V.I. Police Department as part of the candidate's nomination petition paperwork. It was the first time such a requirement was made of political candidates.

"The board instituted that requirement," Fawkes said Friday.

Fawkes told The Daily News on Friday she could not recall which board - the district boards or the joint board of elections - gave her the directive to require police records be submitted with nomination papers.

St. Croix Board of Elections Chairman Adelbert Bryan said that board never told Fawkes to require the police records be submitted.

At a St. Croix board meeting in March, an argument ensued about the issue of requiring candidates to submit police records, and board member Lisa Harris-Moorhead broke the board's quorum when she left the meeting. During the same board's meeting in early May, the topic again arose, but no action was taken when Harris-Moorhead and board member Rupert Ross Jr. left the meeting, again breaking the board's quorum.

At a meeting of the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections also in May, Chairman Arturo Watlington Jr. chastised Fawkes, saying that her action of requiring the police records brings them into the Elections System and opens them up to the public by making them public records.

However, the V.I. Code clearly and specifically states that police records are public documents and does not put any restrictions on their being requested by citizens, regardless of what agency has a copy of them.

Joint Board of Elections chairwoman Alecia Wells said she had no record of anyone asking for police records at a joint board meeting.

"We manage the election. We have nothing to do with vetting the candidates. That's the supervisor's job," she said.

Wells was surprised to hear that election records had been shredded.

"That's something I have to check into because I'm not aware of any of that," Wells said.

Missing records

In early May, Fawkes issued a press release to remind candidates of the upcoming May 13 filing deadline. In the release, she said nomination packets would not be accepted without the police records. In the press release, Fawkes said the police records are not public documents and those submitted by candidates would be reviewed only by her.

The Daily News formally requested copies of the nomination packets on May 21.

In a May 28 email to Fawkes, The Daily News clarified that it wanted access to the entire nomination package, every document a prospective candidate is required to turn into the Elections System. According to a paper provided by the Elections System, police records, campaign finance disclosures and personal finance reports are among the documents required for a candidate's nomination packet.

After weeks of emails and phone calls, Fawkes told The Daily News the documents would be available to review in the Elections offices.

When a reporter went into the St. Croix Elections office Thursday to review the packets, the police records were missing.

Fawkes told the reporter that once she had reviewed the police records, she contacted the candidates and offered to return the documents to them. If they did not want them back, they were shredded, according to Fawkes.

"Those who wanted it back, signed for it, and the rest said 'shred it,'" Fawkes said.

She said she did not understand the problem.

"We shred documents every day," she said. "What's the issue?"

Fawkes comes from the military, and she said shredding documents is a common practice there. If it was not needed, it was destroyed, she said.

Public records

Fawkes said the police background checks are not required under the V.I. Code, therefore the records are not public documents.

However, the territory's open records law states: "'public records' includes 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 V.I. Code says that while "criminal identification files" of the V.I. Police Department are exempt from public disclosure, arrest records are not.

"However, records of current and prior arrests shall be public records," the V.I. Code states.

A criminal act

Daily News legal counsel Kevin Rames said shredding public documents is a criminal act.

"It is difficult to overstate the impropriety attendant to destroying public documents in order to shield them from public view. The Supervisor of Elections initially advanced the legally unsupportable position that the documents were not public records," he said. "When the Supervisor was informed that she was wrong on the law, she arranged to either destroy or to dispose of the documents."

Fawkes told the Daily News reporter who went to look at the nomination packets last week that she had conferred with the V.I. Attorney General's Office and was told that the law does not require police record checks to be submitted by candidates as part of their nomination packets.

However, V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer told The Daily News that there is no question that police records are public documents, and he said he was unaware of Fawkes' actions and that his office never approved destroying the documents.

"I don't know what documents she received and what she did with the documents that she had," Frazer said.

He said he would look into whether the destruction of the records is a violation of the V.I. Code.

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

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