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Thursday, September 28, 2023


June 21, 2002 – After months of public feuding, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Samuel Ebbesen, president of Innovative Telephone, came head to head Friday at a meeting of the Public Services Commission.
Since April 2000, Innovative Telephone has been collecting a dollar a month from its customers on behalf of the V.I. government for emergency services in the territory. Donastorg has wanted to know how the money is collected and how it is disbursed.
After extended and acrimonious debate Friday, the PSC told Innovative to produce its records showing just that.
Donastorg contends that the approximately $60,000 a month that Innovative has been turning over to the government does not represent anywhere near the total collected. The amount corresponds roughly to the number of customers, he said in May, and not "the actual number of telephone lines, which is, by informed estimates, well over 90,000."
Ebbesen said Friday that Innovative Telephone had 70,461 telephone lines in service at the end of May and 61,337 customer bills. He said in a letter to Desmond Maynard, PSC chair, that "only 61,227 customer accounts were billed the 'tax' as required by the statute for the same period."
Donastorg claimed Friday that as a private customer with five lines he pays $5 per month in emergency services assessments, as opposed to what should be $1 per customer. He said he had asked Innovative to consolidate his bills, but the request was ignored. Ebbesen claimed Innovative never received the request, but last month acted on it.
Ebbesen said the reason for the disparity between the 70,461 and 61,227 figures is that many households have asked to have their bills consolidated.
Donastorg disputed that, saying that nowhere near that many households have consolidated bills. "I think 90 percent of people don't consolidate bills, so they can pay one on each pay day," he said.
Customers have repeatedly told the Source that they are charged a dollar for each line they have. One said when he asked the phone company to consolidate his bills, it then sent him one envelope, but inside it were the two bills, each assessing him $1.
"Before 1999, were people told they could consolidate their bills?" Maynard asked Ebbesen on Friday. Ebbesen said he didn't know.
Donastorg said, "There has been no education process. There is a major discrepancy here."
Ebbesen said the billing is automated. "Human hands never touch it," and a code incorporated into the system automatically adds the $1 charge.
He said Innovative submits monthly reports to the Finance Department and the Office of Management and Budget detailing the amounts billed and payable. The company pays the government the amount indicated on the 15th of the following month.
Donastorg has asked Innovative and the PSC for the records of these payments, along with records of the number of customers, number of lines and number of bills sent out In April he asked for a federal audit of the $1 Emergency Services Tax program, and he said on Friday that he would be filing suits in District Court over the matter. He asked the PSC members if they had Innovative records, and received a chorus of "We don't have any."
Maynard halted the proceedings more than once, saying that more information was needed before the commission could take any action on the matter. "You are diametrically opposed," he said to Donastorg and Ebbesen. "More needs to be done. I don't see what position we can take."
But much more discussion ensued — with Ebbesen at one point declaring, "Not one dime is being paid out for any other purpose" than the emergency uses. "I want to defend the integrity of myself and the company." It was decided to postpone any action to a future meeting.
PSC member Alric Simmonds, who is Turnbull's deputy chief of staff, moved to ask Ebbesen to provide the commission documentation of the number of Innovative phone lines, subscribers, monthly bills, consolidated bills and monthly reports to OMB. The motion passed unanimously.
In May, Innovative wrote Gov. Charles W. Turnbull asking to be relieved of the burden of collecting the tax. (See "Innovative wants to stop billing for 911 tax".) There has been no public response from Government House.
Action deferred on request for financial reports
Innovative was the subject of several other items on the day's agenda. On May 21, the Source formally asked in writing to see the annual financial reports that Innovative Telephone is required to file with the PSC, on the grounds that they are public record. On May 28, Maynard wrote back to say that the commission was "checking to determine whether those reports should be released under the Virgin Islands public records act … We expect to make that determination shortly and we will advise you of the decision."
The matter appeared on the agenda for Friday meeting's that was faxed on June 14 to the news media, to Ebbesen and six other officials at Innovative Telephone, and to Innovative attorneys Kevin Rames and Derek Hodge, among others.
On Friday morning, Rames filed a complaint with the PSC alleging that the commission had failed to notify him in a timely manner that the matter was on the agenda.
Shaun Pennington, Source publisher, made no comment as Rames elaborated at length on his complaint and asked that the matter be postponed.
PSC hearing examiner Frederick G. Watts, also an attorney, took issue with Rames's statements, saying he had been in contact regarding the agenda item, and had corresponded "four or five" times, with corporate attorney J'Ada Finch-Sheen, a vice president of Innovative Communication Corp., the parent company of Innovative Telephone.
Watts said for Rames to claim "that we didn't give sufficient time is ludicrous." He said the correspondence he had received was on ICC letterhead stationery and was signed by Finch-Sheen as vice president of ICC.
Further, Watts said, Rames's argument that three weeks' notice was required "is not valid" because the issue "is not a complaint; it is a request for public record."
Rames also contended that the territory's public records act does not allow access to sensitive financial information. He said ICC submitted its financial reports to the commission "subject to a demand for confidentiality." He added that, had the company known that the "PSC was going to void that agreement, we would not have submitted the financials in that form." He said the reports submitted were "substantially more detailed" than what was required by the commission.
Rames also cited a 1989 settlement between the V.I. Telephone Corp. — Vitelco, now called Innovative Telephone — and several entities including the Rural Telephone Finance Cooperative and the PSC which protects certain information. Watts said that agreement doesn't apply in the present case.
Consideration of the matter ended after PSC member Valencio Jackson moved to postpone acting on the Source request until Rames was able to present his case. Jackson said he felt that the disagreement between Watts and Rames on whether there had been sufficient notice was unresolved. PSC member Jerris Browne seconded the motion. Jackson and Browne voted in favor and Maynard voted against, with the other three voting members who were present abstaining; thus, the motion carried.
Maynard was not pleased. If Rames had such "substantive" information to produce, he said, why did wait until the last minute to bring it up? "I don't think that is fair," he said, "and I will continue saying that."
The matter will be taken up at the PSC's next regular meeting, in July. Meanwhile, the commission will meet again Tuesday in its continuing hearings on a lega
lly mandated rate investigation of Innovative Telephone.
In other matters Friday:
– The commission approved an interconnect agreement between Innovative Telephone and Jilipahn Interconnect, doing business as Caribe Telecom.
– Watts as hearing examiner gave a status report on the ongoing Innovative rate investigation. (See "Earnings at issue in phone company probe".)
– A number of assessments on Innovative interconnect agreements were closed out.

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