Fourteen senators voted Wednesday to eject Sen. Steven D. Payne Sr. for multiple violations of Legislature rules related to multiple serious accusations of sexual misconduct, with only Payne himself voting nay. Payne denies the allegations.
At least three women have accused Payne of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment.
The Legislature began its own investigation in April concerning allegations by a member of Payne’s staff.
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.
Bill 34-0287 to sanction Payne for the violation of the code of conduct and for the Legislature’s violation of zero tolerance of sexual harassment — became the last item on the revised agenda.
The measure came up for a vote in the evening right after an hour-long recess. Senate Vice President Novelle Francis offered an amendment that directed Payne be expelled for his violation of the code of ethics, a zero-tolerance policy and his failure to act “with proper decorum” befitting his position.
Earlier in the day, when Bill 34-0287 and the dozen other bills were introduced for the legislative session, a few senators spoke on the record about sanctions.
Payne spoke in his own defense, saying the victim lied several times and wanted to drop the charges from the first day. He said a report that found that he did not violate the policy was not shared with senators.
“I was cleared back in April of not violating the policy,” Payne said. ”Don’t vote on someone else’s word. It’s called due process. I’m asking you to vote a resounding ‘no’ on this unethical resolution.”
Sen. Janelle Sarauw spoke emotionally in opposition, saying she initially didn’t want to talk about “the elephant in the room” but that “silence is complicity.”
“I have to take a position on what’s right. There is no way in hell I could vote a resounding ‘no,’” she said.
Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory added comments saying that as leaders, the Senate must represent the people of the Virgin Islands and set the moral and cultural tone. There are no winners, she added.
Senate Vice President Novelle Francis commended the Ethics Committee for its investigation and said the “onus is on us to make the necessary move on the issue raised.”
Sen. Genevieve Whitaker also said she would vote in favor of sanctions.
“I speak to this measure as a longtime advocate for women and girls. We have to do better to protect women and girls,” she said.
The chair of the Ethics Committee, Sen. Milton Potter, said the committee spoke to the complainant and she “seemed forthcoming.” The committee recommended to the body that Payne be sanctioned.
“None of us asked for this assignment, but you have to step up to the plate when it’s necessary,” he said.
“I had to make a choice in regard to what is best not only for this institution but for the people of this territory,” said Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger after the vote, which was the last action of the day’s busy session.
Sen. Carla Joseph said, “We made a tough decision but we as women must always lead and hold each other accountable.”
Right before banging the gavel to end the day, Frett-Gregory said, “I am certain none of us are leaving here feeling warm and fuzzy today although we passed significant legislation today for the people of the Virgin Islands.”
Under V.I. law, it appears the Democratic Party of the Virgin Islands will play the largest role in picking a temporary successor, should Payne resign or be removed.
The relevant passage reads: “When the vacancy occurs within one year prior to the general election, the President of the Legislature, upon the written recommendation of the territorial committee of the political party of which the previous office holder was a candidate, shall appoint the person so recommended; Provided, however, that if the previous office holder was not a candidate of a political party as defined by law, the Legislature by a two-thirds majority of its members shall elect a person from said district, or at large, as the case may be, to fill the vacancy.” Payne is a Democrat.
Editor’s note: This story has been modified to remove a quote whose context was unclear and therefore potentially misleading.