We too often hear stories of government officials’ misuse of taxpayer funds and lavish spending on themselves or pet projects. Open records or freedom of information requests can be powerful tools for the public to combat financial abuses, hold government accountable and spur positive change.
The Virgin Islands Daily News in St. Thomas recently issued a public records request to Independent Gov. Kenneth Mapp and the U.S. Virgin Islands government, requesting information on government-issued credit cards and government travel documents.
The results were not ideal for Mapp — or the taxpayers of the Virgin Islands.
Last year Jonathan Austin of the Daily News documented, through public records requests, how Mapp used the credit card for personal purchases. According to Austin, this included “beer and groceries, late-nights at a local rib joint, lunches, dinners, $1,200 New York City meals, upgrades to first class for his flight to Guam. [Mapp] also dropped $5,000 at Macy’s in Miami for sheets, towels and bath accessories.”
And that is just the beginning.
After the documents became public, according the Daily News, Mapp took revenge by firing LaVerne Mills-Williams, the government lawyer who released the documents. The government is required to comply with open records requests by law, and it is unclear if Mapp has grounds for firing Mills-Williams, who’s currently suing the government for wrongful termination and contemplating a defamation suit for attacking her character.
The governor has claimed he has done nothing wrong and has the right to alter any documents before providing them to the public. He has also pledged to stonewall further requests.
The Virgin Islands’ legislature has stepped up scrutiny over Mapp’s spending in the wake of the investigation. Virgin Islands Senate President Neville James called Mapp’s one-year tenure as governor a “reign,” and in November 2015, the Senate Finance Committee requested more details and documents from the Virgin Islands’ Office of Management and Budget — so far, the agency has not provided further information.
This story earned the Virgin Islands government the infamous Black Hole Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), which highlights the most egregious violations of the public’s right to an open and transparent government.
“What’s happening in the U.S. Virgin Islands is unacceptable,” said Jonathan Anderson, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. “Citizens deserve a government that is more open and responsive, and they should remember that in the next election.”
“The government’s lack of transparency has caused an uproar in the territory,” Austin of the Daily News wrote in his nomination letter to the Society of Professional Journalists.
In general, this points to the need for clearer laws and guidance regarding how every level of government funds are spent, as well as a clear mechanism for oversight. Whether that comes from a legislative body or some sort of ethics or oversight board, this is something the Virgin Islands currently lacks. If a basic level of accountability and transparency doesn’t exist, then everyone loses. The public loses its faith in government, and the government loses public support as people grow cynical about basic government functions.
“It’s not uncommon for there to be controversy, or back and forth, about a specific expense. ‘Was this appropriate? Could this money have been spent better?’ That’s a normal thing for there to have public debate about. But it’s not usual for there to be a question about whether the accounts should be traceable,” Sunlight’s John Wonderlich told the Daily News.
“You need someone to act against the trend and stand up for the public.”