Representatives for the St. Croix Avis newspaper and the West Indian Co. Ltd. met in the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands on Wednesday in the latest battle over documents related to the rental of Villa Fratelli Cresta, leased on behalf of Gov. Kenneth Mapp.
Amidst ongoing debate in the V.I. Legislature over the arrangement, the newspaper has taken to the courts to challenge WICO for full access to those documents.
On July 29, the Avis filed an action for the release of the rental agreement as well as all other documents and expenses related to the lease. The action named Rena Brodhurst, publisher for the Avis, as having made the request through legal counsel for WICO, Adrian Dudley.
Although WICO challenged the action in court, they have since been ordered to comply with the request. And despite the court order, both parties were back in court this week to debate the release of details of minutes from two key board meetings.
The minutes from the meetings have been an ongoing point of contention between WICO and the Legislature. During a Senate Committee of the Whole in July, WICO produced an unsigned lease, details of expenses and checks pertaining to the agreement. Included in the documents was the roll call of the board’s vote to approve the resolution to pay Mapp’s rent at the villa on April 14.
That resolution was signed a month later by Mapp’s chief of staff, Randolph Knight, who also chairs the WICO board. WICO officials, however, refused to disclose the minutes from those two meetings in which the rental agreement was discussed.
Citing federal suit Sprauve v. West Indian Company Limited, WICO contested that according to the U.S. District Court for the Virgin Islands, WICO employees were not public employees. By extension, WICO argued, it could not be considered a public corporation and was within its rights to maintain the privacy of those documents.
WICO President Joseph Boschulte defended the decision to withhold the records as a matter of law.
“Based on the recent court decision, WICO cannot take a position inconsistent with the court’s interpretation of WICO’s status and must respectfully decline the production of WICO’s meeting minutes,” said Boschulte.
A subsequent federal appellate court ruling in August, however, overturned that decision, rendering WICO a government entity. Despite the decision, following the action taken by the Avis in July, WICO responded with a motion to dismiss, affirming once again that it was not a “governmental agency” nor was it required to produce the documents.
In response to the motion, Lee J. Rohn, attorney for the Avis, argued that not only is WICO a public corporation, but also that it is an instrument of the government and a wholly owned subsidiary of the Virgin Islands Public Finance Authority.
WICO’s “entire existence” was based on government funding, Rohn stated. As such, all records are the public domain, including the minutes.
“All of WICO’s income-generating properties belong to the government and the revenue is considered public funds that it then reinvests into its operations,” Rohn stated in her opposition to the motion to dismiss.
On Friday, following the denial of the motion to dismiss, WICO acted in compliance with the court order to provide documentation relevant to the villa rental. Although some of the documents had previously been publicly released, the latest documents included the addition of minutes of the board meeting at which the rental was discussed and voted upon.
The released transcripts, however, were heavily redacted, prompting another round of hearings. Central to these hearings is the issue of privilege and the how that privilege extends to board meetings, stated Judge Robert A. Molloy, who was presiding over the case.
WICO has been ordered to produce sealed copies of the transcripts for the court to review. Both parties will file supplemental briefs in response to the matter of the minutes.
Plaintiff Rena Brodhurst said she was very pleased with the result, hailing her attorney as a “champion for free press.”
“She’s doing a hell of a job,” Brodhurst said.
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