Fundraisers for Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) on St.Thomas, shortly before and after Shuster helped shepherd "Sixpack" legislation benefitting U.S. Virgin Islanders are under national scrutiny with some suggesting they seem improper, even if no laws were violated.
At issue was legislation, approved by Congress late last year, to again allow uninspected charter boats in the Virgin Islands to carry up to a dozen passengers. That was the norm until 1993, when Congress set the limit at six passengers under the terms of the Passenger Vessel Safety Act. The industry moved en masse from St. Thomas and St. John to the adjacent British Virgin Islands. The V.I. industry shrank from a $100 million-a-year enterprise in the 1980s to about $30 million by 1993, according to a 1994 position paper by the V.I. Marine Industries Association. It stayed at that low level, and was around $25 million a year in 2014, according to the VIMA. (See Related Links below)
Delegate Donna Christensen, who left office in January, pushed for an exemption for the USVI throughout her entire 18 year career in Congress, as did governors Roy Schneider, Charles Turnbull and John deJongh Jr. It languished for decades, until this year, when it was approved by a wide, bipartisan margin.
On May 6, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal watchdog group focused on the influence of money on politics, published a blog by Matthew Corley suggesting Shuster’s work on the legislation and his fundraising of about $33,000 after it passed were unseemly. (See: "How Bill Shuster Came To the Rescue of The U.S. Virgin Islands Charter Industry" in Related Links below)
A few days later, Politico, a Washington D.C. magazine that largely features D.C. establishment political opinion and insider commentary, highlighted the CREW piece, adding some quotes from V.I. donors saying they appreciated Shuster’s work.
Both items focus on the fact that Shuster raised $33,000 at a V.I. fundraiser after helping to get the legislation benefitting the USVI passed in Congress. Both also point to the fact that the Legislation benefits the USVI and the fact that the USVI is tropical, with beaches, as incriminating factors.
CREW writes that Shuster spent campaign funds in the territory, saying "More than $1,500 went to ‘lodging’ and ‘site rental’ at The Frenchman’s Reef Marriott, which ‘boasts a beautiful hilltop location overlooking a private beach with sweeping views of the sea.’"
Also, Shuster and however many were with him, spent too much campaign money on eating, according to CREW, prompting the author to write that, "the committee also dropped $1,135 at Thirteen Restaurant, considered “one of the top five restaurants on the island” with a menu that is “pricey but oh-so-worth it.” Another meal, costing $920, was at Grande Cru, a waterfront restaurant offering “an upscale dining experience in a casually chic setting.”
Speaking by phone Monday, CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said he was no expert on whether the specific policy should be changed, but that Shuster’s fundraisers showed the influence of money on policymaking.
"I wouldn’t take a position on whether the particular legislation is a good thing or a bad thing. … I’m not an expert on the regulation of vessels and boats," Bookbinder said.
But Shuster, as a Pennsylvania representative, "wouldn’t have had any reason to advocate for it, based on his position in Congress," he said.
When asked, Bookbinder said CREW would have reported on the same fundraiser if it had occurred in Ohio rather than in the tropics on an island.
"If a congressman from Pennsylvania like Bill Shuster, when he fundraised in Ohio, then supported legislation to help Ohio where he raised funds, that would be worth some scrutiny," Bookbinder said.
But he also insisted that visiting the territory is inherently suspicious, saying "the exotic locale, the fact that he could get a luxurious vacation seems to be something that could sweeten the deal for him to make it worth his while to go out there."
Asked if CREW believed Shuster sold his vote, Bookbinder said, "we have not said there was a quid pro quo. … Certainly CREW has not filed a complaint in this case.”
But the lack of a quid pro quo — latin for "this for that," does not mean all is well, according to Bookbinder.
"I am not suggesting we have any indication of a quid pro quo. I am suggesting is this is an example of someone in Congress doing something that benefits a group of people who in turn support that member with financial contributions. So it does seem like money influencing policy," Bookbinder said.
Asked how the USVI could work to get other members of Congress to help on local issues without it being considered improper, Bookbinder said members should come as part of their job-related activities as congressional representatives, rather than on fundraising trips.
"While I am certainly sympathetic to the Virgin Islands not frequently having its needs met by Congress, that doesn’t change the fact that money is often what you need to get people to look at the issue," he said.
Reached for comment, Delegate Stacey Plaskett, (D-VI) who took office right before the legislation passed, said the territory had been lobbying for the change for years and was glad to get the help.
“A bipartisan congressional outreach program has existed for many years," Plaskett said. "The Virgin Islands, just like Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and all the U.S. territories do not have representation in the U.S. Senate. And, in the House of Representatives, the territory delegates do not have a vote on legislation that comes before the full chamber. It is very important to ensure members of Congress, especially any who may authorize policies and funding for federal programs, understand and appreciate the territory’s needs and the impact of federal regulations and resources on our territory. Visiting the territory provides officials with first-hand experience of the economic and infrastructure challenges our citizens face every day," she said.
Gov. Kenneth Mapp had not responded to a request for comment as of 10 p.m. Monday.