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Officials Like to Keep Their Secrets

June 16, 2005 – One propensity of the V.I. government that turns up in all departments and among all parties is that of secrecy.
Some politicians bristle when it is called secrecy. They prefer terms like "privileged information," "trade secrets" and "confidentiality." However, it all amounts to the same thing — someone refusing to tell someone else what is going on.
The situation in the Virgins Islands is not just a problem of the public not getting information from government; government officials often appear unwilling to share information with other government officials.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said Wednesday he was not even sure what the budget for his office will be this year. He said he has been told that offices have been leased by the Senate Post Audit Division, and that unexpected expense meant senator's allotments will have to be cut. Donastorg said he can't get any information about the lease, so he doesn't know what his allotment will be.
His remarks were in response to a question about what he was receiving from taxpayers to cover his expenses this year.
This article focuses on the lack of free-flowing information about those Senate allotments, a contract between the V.I. government and American Eagle Airlines, and the Economic Development Commission's decision to grant tax benefits to Innovative Telephone Co. All three situations in recent months have resulted in either subpoenas for information or Freedom of Information requests. The Source called nine officials, six of whom made themselves available to discuss the issues.
Three senators were adamant that information should flow more freely between government agencies and to the public. Sens. Celestino White, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Craig Barshinger also were forthcoming with their allotment figures. Barshinger, as a senator at large, said he is receiving $216,000. White, as majority leader, said he is receiving $250,000 plus $66,000 for being head of the Housing Sports and Veteran Affairs Committee. Nelson said his allotment was $284,000, plus $66,000 for being chairman of the Labor and Agriculture Committee.
White said he thought too much was being made of what individual senator's allotments were. "Senators receive allotments commensurate with their responsibilities and duties," he said.
White said he felt so strongly about the EDC's refusal to release information that he was going to introduce legislation requiring Senate approval for EDC applications. He said that would open the deliberative process to public scrutiny.
This was consistent with his thoughts on the American Eagle contract, too. When public funds are being spent, there needs to be public scrutiny, he said. "We don't know how much money was spent, and we don't know from what fund it was paid," he said.
Barshinger said he was an "open books sort of guy." He said "the public has a right to know unless a compelling need has been established to show that the facts can't be told."
He said about the Eagle contract, "It evidently involved a huge chunk of change. We have a right to ascertain whether it was a conscionable contract."
Nelson said, "The contract was ludicrous. We are still unclear on some of the details."
The debate about the Eagle contract information has been going on for months (See "Lieutenant Governor Defends Questioned Contract").
Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards has responded to some requests made by senators about the contract, but not in a way that has seemed to please anyone.
White said he had been assured by Senate President Lorraine Berry that Richards would be answering senators' questions. (Richards had scheduled a press conference on the subject, but then cancelled.) Richards' office was contacted for this article, but the phone call was not returned.
Barshinger said he did not follow closely the June 2 Committee on Government Operations and Consumer Protection hearing where members of the EDC refused to answer questions about their deliberation or supply documentation in support of their decision to grant tax breaks to Innovative, also known as Vitelco. (See "Senators Fume Over Tax Benefits for Vitelco"). However, he added, "Given Innovative is a monopoly, the action deserved scrutiny." He said he was concerned because the EDC action gave the appearance of "inappropriateness and special treatment."
Dean Plaskett, chairman of the commission, and Frank Schulterbrandt, executive director of the EDC, cited a 1985 case decided by Judge Almeric Christian in the U.S. District Court for the Virgin Islands.
In that case, V.I. legislators were trying to subpoena documents and testimony from the Commission on Ethics and Conflict of Interests. The commission had dropped an investigation of William Blum.
The judge ruled that the subpoenas be squashed. In his ruling, he wrote that the law does not permit "investigation into the methods by which a decision is reached, the matters considered, the contributing influences, or the role played by the works of others."
Donastorg, the chairman of the Government Operations Committee who had issued the subpoenas to the EDC, said he is not through with that issue. He said he had forwarded a request to the Senate's legal counsel to determine if the EDC members had legal foundation in their denial of information to the legislators.
Nelson did not seem satisfied with EDC members' response, either. He said, "I have a big problem with it." He said he did not know why commission members did not simply disclose the information, because it is ultimately the responsibility of the senators to make decisions concerning the EDC.
Barshinger sent out a press release Friday asking for more openness in government, especially in the area of budget allotments.
What spurned him to get serious about making allotments public was a line item in individual senators' budgets called "contributions and grants," he said. He had $300 in his budget, he said, while Donastorg said he thought he had $1,000 in his.
Barshinger said this fund could apparently be used for "quasi-campaign" purposes. Without public disclosure of the allotments, "We don't know that some senator is not getting a $500,000 allotment with $25,000 to be used for quasi-campaign purposes," he said.
Barshinger first requested from Berry in January the budget allotments for all senators, but he has yet to receive a response. Barshinger also asked in writing May 18 about the allotments, but he had not received any response. The Source has sent a Freedom of Information request for the information to Berry; it also has not received any response. Berry has said the information will come out in budget hearings.
Barshinger said all records pertaining to the budget allotments are public and should be available.
A call to Berry's office Wednesday for this article was not returned.
Anne Golden, who works as a consultant for Berry, stated that it was her opinion that the burden should not be placed on Berry to reveal the senators' allotments. She said each senator should make their allotment public.
Donastorg disagreed, saying it was the Senate president's responsibility to make Senate finances public.
Nelson, who is in his first year as a senator, said he did not expect so many "encumbrancers" in trying to get the job done. He said it was because "so many of these people, who should be acting like professionals, are acting childish."
Barshinger also gave the figures for the other members of the minority caucus. He said all members were allotted $150,000. Sens. Neville James and Pedro Encarnacion would each also get another $66,000 to oversee as committe
e chairmen.
Nelson said he was introducing a bill at the next Committee of the Whole to make the base allotments equal.
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