Payne Files Complaint in Bid to Be Restored to Senate Seat

Sen. Steven Payne Sr. testifying on a bill he sponsored in October of 2020 on St. Thomas. (Photo by Barry Leerdam and Alvin Burke, V.I. Legislature)

Sen. Steven Payne Sr., expelled from the 34th Legislature over sexual misconduct allegations, filed a complaint Friday in the V.I. Superior Court in a bid to be restored to his Senate seat.

Payne alleges in the complaint that his fellow senators acted illegally when they voted to expel him on July 20 and then swore in Angel Bolques Jr. on July 25 to fill his seat. Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory and the other senators of the 34th Legislature are named as defendants in the case.

Joining Payne as a plaintiff is Noellise Powell, a registered voter from the district of St. John “who has voted for and supported Democratic Candidates, including Senator Payne, in each of his prior elections and looks forward to voting for him into the 35th Legislature,” according to the complaint.

Bolques is running against Payne for St. John’s senator-at-large seat in the Democratic primary election that takes place on Aug. 6. Per V.I. law, the Democratic Party’s Territorial Committee chose him to fill the seat for the remainder of the term, which expires at the end of the second week of January.

A hearing on Payne’s motion for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday before Judge Renee Gumbs-Carty.

At least three women have accused Payne of sexual misconduct, including an employee of the Legislature.

The Legislature began its own investigation in April focused solely on the allegations of the legislative staff member, who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Payne stemming from a trip to St. Croix on official Senate business in February.

The complaint states that on Feb. 28 Payne’s officer manager asked him to give an employee a ride to the hotel where they were both staying, which he did. “There were discussions during the ride pertaining to security, which she acknowledged in the early paperwork pertaining to this dispute, but upon information and belief, her coworker initiated a sexual harassment complaint,” Payne’s complaint states. It does not provide any further detail of what occurred.

In May, the V.I. Legislature and the Democratic Party of the Virgin Islands urged Payne to resign or be removed. That same month, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. issued a statement calling on Attorney General Denise George to open an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse made against Payne by a young woman who said that Payne sexually assaulted her when she was a minor.

Payne has fiercely denied the allegations. However, the Senate voted 14-1 on July 20 to expel him, with Payne the sole nay vote.

While the Committee on Ethics that investigated the senator had recommended a 50-day suspension without pay, Bill No. 34-0287 was subsequently amended to instead expel him.

The complaint, filed by his attorney Treston Moore, says Payne consistently denied the allegations and during a disciplinary hearing on July 6, pointed out several inconsistencies in the statements of the staff member who reported the alleged harassment, and said she did not swear to her testimony.

“The employee declined to pursue the matter, did not cooperate with the initial investigation and has never, to the best of Plaintiffs’ knowledge and belief, sworn to those allegations,” according to the complaint. “Nevertheless, Defendant Frett-Gregory referred the matter to the Ethics Committee in March 2022.”

The complaint further alleges that investigators designated to assemble information pertaining to the incident, Senate Vice President Novelle Francis and Legislature Executive Director Kurell Sheridan, “concluded in their Investigation Report Revised, dated April 13, 2022, ‘The investigation does not support a determination that the Sexual Harassment Policy of the Virgin Islands Legislature was violated.’”

At a preliminary inquiry before the ethics committee on May 17, “Senator Payne was permitted to supplement his transcribed responses provided on that occasion and did so on May 20, 2022, both were denials of any untoward conduct,” the complaint states.

The employee eventually gave a transcribed but unsworn statement on June 6, the complaint says, and the ethics committee issued its Statement of Alleged Violations on June 9, to which Payne responded within the allotted 20 days, “noting that the allegations were untrue and that they were repetitive to one incident of alleged conversations.”

The July 6 disciplinary hearing followed, at which Payne continued to deny the allegations and said his accuser’s statement was unsworn. On July 19, three days after early voting had begun in the primary election, Bill No. 34-0287 was proposed by members of the ethics committee, recommending a reprimand and a 50-day suspension without pay, according to the complaint.

“The Committee, having exclusively conducted all fact-finding in the matter, did not recommend to the Legislature that he be expelled as required by Rule 814(c),” the complaint states.

On July 20, “upon a motion sponsored by no member of the fact-finding Ethics Committee, the Bill was Amended to Expel Senator Payne from the Legislature, arbitrarily, capriciously and illegally in violation of the exclusive qualifications so to do” cited in the Revised Organic Act, “but upon Rules subject to challenges of due process for, inter alia, vagueness and overbreadth,” the complaint states.

By installing Bolques in his seat during the current Democratic primary, “Defendants have inappropriately interfered with the rights of Senator Payne and the voters and impermissibly influence[d] the potential outcomes of that event,” the complaint states. “Defendants have taken, in effect, the Democratic franchise from the register[ed] Democrat Voters on St. John to elect who they choose to govern them.”

Payne is asking the court to reseat him and remove Bolques; to enter a judgment against the defendants for his actual, consequential, and miscellaneous damages, in an amount to be proven at trial; payment of funds “wrongfully withheld for immediate use in his Primary Campaign,” as well as costs, expenses and attorney fees expended because of the court case.

There is recent legal precedent that may be relevant to this dispute. In 2017, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on a decision by the Legislature to seat Sen. Janelle Sarauw and not Sen. Kevin Rodriquez, over a challenge to Rodriquez’s residency. That court found that courts could weigh in on the eligibility of candidates before an election but, “After the Legislature convenes, however, the power to determine a winning candidate’s eligibility to serve shifts to the Legislature.”

The court cited a passage of the Revised Organic Act of 1954, the federal law that serves as a constitution for the territory, stating that “[t]he legislature shall be the sole judge of the elections and qualifications of its members.”