Following a V.I. Supreme Court order on July 1, the West Indian Co. Ltd’s new attorneys have released two unredacted transcripts from executive sessions held in 2015 discussing a controversial decision to pay former Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s $12,000 a month rent for a villa on St. Thomas.
The ruling from Chief V.I. Supreme Court Justice Rhys Hodge comes on the heels of another ruling from V.I. Superior Court Judge Robert A. Molloy, who ordered WICO on June 12 to adhere to the territory’s public records law. At the heart of the four year old case has been WICO’s assertion that it is not a public entity, and therefore, does not have to adhere to open records laws.
“Because WICO falls under the executive branch of the Government of the Virgin Islands, all records or documents belonging to WICO also fall within the definition of ‘public records’ under the Virgin Islands Public Records Act. Thus, the inescapable conclusion is that all records and documents of or belonging to WICO, ‘a public entity operating on behalf of the Government,’ Act No. 5826, 8 (b) are subject to disclosure under the Virgin Islands Public Records Act,” Molloy’s June opinion said.
The case grew out of a July 2015 legislative hearing during which WICO maintained it was prohibited from providing information on the decision to pay Mapp’s rent. Mapp’s permanent residence was on St. Croix, but he needed a residence on St. Thomas. The traditional Government House residence – Catharineberg – had not been usable for several years because of mold. Catharineberg is owned by WICO, which normally charged $1 annual rent.
WICO is wholly owned by the Public Finance Authority, an entity within the executive branch of the V.I. government.
During the hearing, former WICO board chairman and Mapp Chief of Staff Randy Knight testified that on April 14, WICO’s governing board approved a resolution, which Knight signed a month later, agreeing to pay Mapp’s rent at Villa Fratelli Cresta, indefinitely, starting at $12,000 per month, then increasing to $14,500 per month. WICO is wholly owned by the V.I. Government.
The villa was brand new, completed in December 2014, and listed for rent Jan. 2 of that year, owner Jimez Ashby told the Senate at the time. Ashby also owns A-9 Trucking, the principal trucking contractor for the Waste Management Authority.
Knight also told senators in 2015 he asked WICO to pay the governor’s rent after the Department of Property and Procurement rejected the proposed lease as too extravagant, during a Committee of the Whole hearing Thursday.
After the Senate hearing, the Source, the St. Croix Avis and other media outlets submitted written requests to WICO to obtain the documents pertaining to the lease for governor’s villa. WICO declined and the Avis filed a petition for release of the documents with the court in July 2015.
WICO filed a motion to dismiss, again stating it was not a government agency, but provided the Avis with the documents it had requested including copies of the lease and transcripts of board meetings. According to the court, the “transcripts were significantly redacted.”
The judge then ordered sealed and un-redacted documents to be turned over to the Avis. This was not done and the Avis filed for sanctions. The court then took motions under advisement and, citing cases from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and the Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands, ruled that WICO is a public agency. WICO then informed the court and the Avis it had decided to make records available to the public.
Since then WICO and the Avis have argued whether providing some of the documents would make the matter moot. If all documents had been turned over, un-redacted, WICO would have rendered the petition moot, Molloy stated, because all documents were provided. However, all of the documents were not disclosed.
The Avis then requested a writ of mandamus from the judge to order WICO to comply fully and WICO continued to seek a dismissal.
In the end, the court denied the Avis motion for sanctions and ruled in favor of WICO’s motion to strike the Avis motion for sanctions.
The order last week forced WICO’s attorney to turn over the unredacted transcripts to the media, and according to other news reports, two – including the transcript from the April 14 hearing in which the lease was resolution authorizing the lease was approved – were released to the Avis and Daily News. Despite repeated requests, nothing has yet been turned over to the Source.
Gov. Albert Bryan made a campaign promise that WICO would open its meetings. In March, WICO’s new board issued a statement saying WICO will notify the press with the date and time of its meetings with five days advance notice. Also, the board will open its regular sessions to the press and provide a summary of all actions taken in executive sessions.
WICO’s statement says its public information officer will follow up after each meeting of the board with a news release of all significant actions it has taken.
In a February editorial, the Source urged WICO be merged into the Port Authority, in part over these issues of transparency and in part because the two entities are redundant.