Senator-elect Kevin Rodriquez has broken his silence on recent challenges to his eligibility as a candidate, saying in a statement Thursday that he has “complied fully with the laws of the Virgin Islands” governing residency.
A citizen complaint recently filed with the V.I. Election Systems challenged Rodriquez’s eligibility based on bankruptcy filings made in Tennessee, which St. Thomas resident Brigitte Berry said shows that Rodriquez has not met the local residency requirements for running for public office.
According to the claims and court documents, Rodriquez filed for bankruptcy in January 2016 and gave a Nashville address as his place of residence.
According to other published media reports, court documents show that Rodriquez and his wife Kimberly have not owned their house in Tennessee since 2014, and were involved in a suit against Citigroup, which bought the property at auction. In her challenge, Berry, who actively worked as part of the campaign team for Senate candidate Janelle Sarauw but said that she filed the complaint as a “citizen” of the territory, asserts that the most recent 2016 filing conflicts with the V.I. law requiring all candidates seeking a Senate seat to have lived in the territory at least three years prior to running.
Rodriquez challenged the claims in his Thursday statement, saying, “I am a born Virgin Islander, I was raised and educated here, I have a home here, I have been a resident of St. Thomas for the past three-plus years. I have been employed in St. Thomas since January 2013, my taxes for 2013, 2014 and 2015 were filed in the Virgin Islands in accordance with the Internal Revenue Code, and I voted in the 2014 and 2016 elections. I was thoroughly vetted by the Virgin Islands Board of Elections and deemed qualified to run for office.”
But the question that seems to be raised by the bankruptcy filing is which residence Rodriquez has actually claimed; according to campaign filings with the Elections System, Rodriquez has also listed an Anna’s Retreat residence on St. Thomas, which is included as an asset in the January bankruptcy filings.
According to federal law, Chapter 13 bankruptcy provides opportunities for homeowners to delay or prevent foreclosure and pay off back debt on their mortgages. This option can give homeowners who are behind on their mortgage payments time to catch up so they can keep their homes. Residency requirements differ from state to state, but a homestead exemption offered through bankruptcy, called “ownership through tenancy,” could give the owner the chance to file bankruptcy to save his home in a state in which he is not a resident.
This exemption is offered in 18 states, including Tennessee. In his statement Thursday, Rodriquez said that in filing for bankruptcy, he “acted under the advice of legal counsel,” and thought what he had done was legal and acceptable.
“The fact is that my bankruptcy filing was a decision made on the advice of legal counsel as an avenue to save the home where my wife and two minor children reside,” Rodriquez said. “Bankruptcy is a legal avenue that is there for every U.S. citizen and has been used by many in the past, to include the very man that was just elected to lead our country.”
With the challenge now out there, Elections Systems officials have said that they are not in a position to decide on Rodriquez’s eligibility now that he has been elected.
“How could that happen?” St. Thomas-St. John District Board of Elections Chairman Arturo Watlington Jr. said when contacted by the Source. If someone "questions his eligibility now, after he’s already been elected, it’s up to the courts or the Legislature to decide what to do. We’re not a criminal investigation agency.”
Watlington added that there are some “gray areas” in the law governing what happens when there is a vacancy, but confirmed that the candidate with the next highest amount of votes – in this case, Sarauw – would not automatically get the seat.
“This is the first time in my lifetime that the issue has come up between the time a candidate is elected and the time in which he takes his seat,” Watlington said. “But it’s not up to us at Elections to make a new rule based on a gap in the law. The vacancy would have occurred in the Legislature, so they should decide, or prior to that, someone can go to court and ask for a declaratory judgment, but it’s not up to us.”