Nov. 6, 2002 Innovative Telephone's failure to pay the full $400,000 in assessments as ordered by the Public Services Commission last month drew criticism and resulted in an executive session being called during a special meeting of the PSC on Wednesday.
After a couple of rounds between Samuel Ebbesen, Innovative Telephone president, and PSC chair Desmond Maynard, commission counsel Frederick Watts said he would give legal advice to the body in executive session.
In a hearing on Sept. 30, the PSC voted to require Innovative to pay $400,000 of its $604,400 debt to the commission by Oct. 4. At that meeting, Ebbesen said Innovative was trying to resolve the matter but didn't understand all of the bills, some of which dated back to July 2001, and therefore couldn't pay them.
However, at Wednesday's meeting it came to light that V.I. Telephone Corp., or Vitelco, now known as Innovative Telephone, had signed an agreement with the PSC in April 1989 stating that in the event of an appeal of any assessment, the utility company would pay the assessment and work out the questions later.
Ebbesen attempted to convince the commission there were extenuating circumstances that forced the utility to sign the 1989 agreement, but Maynard was having none of it. "I don't believe that the commission is acting in a vindictive way, but I get the sense the commission feels Vitelco is acting in bad faith," Maynard said.
Commission member Alric Simmonds asked Ebbesen if the phone company allowed its customers to hold off paying their phone bills until any discrepancies were worked out. Simmonds, who works for the Office of the Governor, said the phone company had sent a "huge" bill to the government, "and we had to pay that bill." Later, he added, "we ended up with a huge credit."
At the Sept. 30 hearing Ebbesen had said the phone company was trying to meet with the PSC to get its questions answered and that was why it hadn't paid the bills.
On Wednesday, he said the company was making headway in understanding the vouchers related to the assessment but that, due to the Innovative Telephone and Cable Television strike, "We are all doing four or five jobs."
But Maynard said, "the ongoing labor dispute" notwithstanding, "the matter goes back to July of last year."
The Oct. 4 deadline passed without payment, but two payments of $75,000 each have been made since then. An earlier $75,000 payment had been made prior to the PSC's order. But the commission members weren't inclined on Wednesday to accept $225,000 as being enough.
"The commission asked for $400,000," Maynard said, but the company is paying "on account" instead.
PSC member Jerris Browne asked what recourse was available, and fellow member Valencio Jackson asked Watts if interest could be charged to the company. Watts deferred his response to questions for the executive session.
When the commission members came out of executive session, they would say only that they had directed Watts to write to the phone company laying out their decision on how to handle Innovative's delinquency. Neither they nor Watts would detail the terms to be laid out in the letter.
No recusal for Maynard
Before addressing the delinquent payments issue, Innovative attorney Kevin Rames attempted to get the PSC to respond to the company's earlier request that Maynard recuse himself from matters related to Innovative Telephone because Maynard, also a lawyer, represents a former Virgin Islands Daily News photographer who is suing both the newspaper and its parent company, Innovative Communication Corp., which also owns Innovative Telephone. (See "Challenge of PSC chair raises ICC questions".)
Watts questioned Rames repeatedly on where in the law Rames found anything to indicate the commission should rule on such a request. Regarding the authority of the PSC, "the statute is clear," Watts told Rames. "What right does the PSC have to interpret" a possible conflict of interest?
Rames called the V.I. Code statute an "outline," adding that a commission member should voluntarily step down if there is a conflict of interest.
"What Mr. Watts is trying to get to," Maynard then said, "is what if the person doesn't agree that there is a conflict of interest."
Watts said the attorney general is the official legally charged with deciding conflict-of-interest cases. In the end, Watts said Rames's request would be "taken under advisement," saying it was the same as a standing request. The commissioners then moved on with the business of the agenda, with Maynard continuing to chair the meeting.
Action deferred on other matters
Attorney Daryl Dodson, representing Choice Communications, formerly called Wireless World, sat through most of the agenda, which included a complaint filed by Wireless World about the rates Innovative Telephone is charging Choice, an Innovative competitor, for its broadband access. Dodson said companies elsewhere could receive 28 times the capacity for the price that Innovative is charging Choice.
Ebbesen said he was not familiar with the letter filed in July by then-Wireless World asking the PSC to exercise its authority to establish a tariff for Innovative's DS-3 broadband service. Watts agreed to give Ebbesen two weeks to review the document, saying he would put the matter on the agenda for the next meeting.
On a request by the V.I. Source newspapers to have access to the financial statements filed by all regulated companies with the PSC, Watts said the commission should first circulate the request to all of the regulated companies seeking their response. He also said he would seek the Source's legal justification for getting the documents.
Commission members in attendance were Browne, Verne David, Jackson, Maynard, Simmonds and Alecia Wells. The seventh voting member, Luther Renee, and the two non-voting legislative members, Sens. Donald "Ducks" Cole and Emmett Hansen II, were absent.
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