The legal battle between the Virgin Islands Daily News and Sen. Ronald Russell over release of financial records linked to the inspector general’s 2011 audit wrapped up Thursday as Russell conceded that the documents were not, as he had argued, confidential under Virgin Islands law.
Since December of last year, the Daily News had been seeking the release of documents pertaining to cash advances made to senators during the 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th Legislatures. On October 12, they filed suit in Superior Court to compel the release of the documents, at which point Russell filed his own petition asking for the courts to block public access to them, claiming they were confidential.
The crux of Russell’s argument rested on his interpretation of Title 3 sec. 881(g)(13) of the Virgin Island code, which states that “all working papers, draft reports and documents containing evidence to support findings, conclusions, and judgments of auditors of the Office of the V.I. Inspector General” were confidential and could be blocked from public inspection unless otherwise ordered by a court or by the person or agency holding those records.
Russell argued that since the inspector general looked at the documents during his investigation they constituted “documents containing evidence” and thus were not subject to the territory’s open records law. If this interpretation were true, it would mean all documents examined in the course of an audit could be made off-limits to the press and public, rendering it virtually impossible to verify the findings of the inspector general or discover more detail in areas where an audit uses vague or unspecific language.
The Daily News argued that this interpretation was too broad and that the law only applied to documents in the inspector general’s possession, not to otherwise public documents viewed during the course of the audit.
The two parties met in Superior Court on Tuesday to argue the case, at which point Judge Darryl Dean Donohue ordered both to prepare written briefs on their positions and submit them to the court. The trial was to reconvene Friday, but the parties came to a settlement on Thursday and submitted a joint stipulation.
According to the stipulation, the two parties engaged Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt as a mediator, and it would appear he sided with the narrower interpretation of the law. The stipulation states that since none of the documents requested by the Daily News had been generated by the Office of the Inspector General they were not confidential under the statute in question.
“The Inspector General has confirmed that he has no objection to the release of any documents that are business or financial records of the Virgin Islands Legislature,” it reads.
In further states that the Legislature will comply with the Daily News’ request and releases the records in question.
In a press release, Russell stated that, “Virgin Islands law recognizes that reasonable minds can have good faith disputes as to the scope of the public access law.”
He goes on to say, “the real challenge was resolving this dispute in a fashion that protects confidential information and documents but permits full public access to public records.”