Carnival At the Heart of Newly Filed Federal Lawsuit

Leaders of the Virgin Islands Carnival Committee have filed a federal lawsuit, accusing the Department of Tourism of taking their property without compensation. The lawsuit, filed Monday in District Court on St. Thomas, also claims officials at Tourism are infringing on registered trademarks and violations of the 1946 Lanham Act.

The Gypsies Carnival Troupe perform at the 2019 St. Thomas Carnival. tribute this year to Ronnie Lockhart with a candy-themed entry. (Photo provided by V.I. Carnival Committee)
Leaders of the Virgin Islands Carnival Committee filed a federal lawsuit on Monday in District Court against the V.I. Department of Tourism. (Photo provided by V.I. Carnival Committee)

Under provisions in the Lanham Act, it is illegal to use variations of a registered trademark name that are considered closely related or similar in a way that’s meant to confuse those who see it. Officials who filed the lawsuit include Carnival Committee Executive Director Edgar Baker Phillips and Assistant Director Steve Hunt.

Allegations contained in the lawsuit are directed toward Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte, Division of Festivals Director Ian Turnbull, and Assistant Director Halvor Hart III. Phillips and Hunt are asking the court to issue an injunction that would prevent the unauthorized use of Carnival Committee resources taken from their office in the Fort Christian Parking Lot.

The two registered trademarks cited in court papers are Virgin Islands Carnival and St. Thomas Carnival. The property claimed as taken without compensation from the committee office includes vendor contract lists, volunteer contact lists, application forms, forms for preparing contracts, waivers, indemnity agreements, and judging criteria for competitions staged as part of the annual fete.

It is prohibited, under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, for the government to take private property without providing just compensation to the property owner. As a registered nonprofit organization, Carnival Committee officials claim the properties taken from the office and revenues provided by contracted sponsors are protected under federal law.

The lawsuit alleges that Hart had access to the materials while serving as the committee’s director and took them with him to his new job in the Festivals division. Committee officials said they were not compensated and were told by Tourism officials that the agency controlled “receipts and disbursement of all funds for private donations and sponsorships for all festivals.”

Reference was also made to Act No. 8153, passed by the 32nd Legislature as Bill No. 32-0308. That measure amended the Virgin Islands Code to establish the Division of Festivals under the Department of Tourism. The bill was signed by former Gov. Kenneth Mapp in 2019 and became law, but it did not call for any action to be taken against the V.I. Carnival Committee.

If the court rules in favor of the committee, officials want — among other things — to bar Tourism from pursuing its vendors and sponsors, to recall all applications sent to vendors, exhibitors and participants, and to stop Tourism from using property and materials belonging to them.

They also want the court to order that Tourism surrender all unauthorized merchandise bearing the committee’s registered trademarks, and to provide a verified accounting of all revenues received by the government resulting from misuse of the committee’s trademarks and names.

Carnival Committee officials also want a court order barring Tourism from using “any term confusingly similar to Virgin Islands Carnival Committee trademarks and names.”

The Carnival Committee was organized in 1952 and operated as a volunteer organization under different leadership teams until 2019. Every year during that time, committee members scheduled the various events staged during Carnival season and worked through the logistics to carry out each of the committee-sponsored events.

Sponsored events included tramps and parades, pageants, musical showcases, a food fair, a children’s amusement park, competitions, and fireworks.

Former V.I. Attorney General Terri Griffiths, now a private practice attorney in Florida, filed documents with the court on behalf of the committee on Monday. On Tuesday, the court issued summonses to the three officials named in the lawsuit, along with Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and Attorney General Denise George.

Those receiving summonses were directed to respond to the charges named in the lawsuit within 30 days of the date they were issued. Boschulte was asked to comment on the court filing Monday but said he had not seen the document at that time.