Home News Local news PSC DISCONTENT, DOSSIER AIRED AT FINANCE HEARING

PSC DISCONTENT, DOSSIER AIRED AT FINANCE HEARING

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March 18, 2003 – Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and the Finance Committee he chairs heard from the Public Services Commission at a hearing on Tuesday, but not from the PSC members.
Only two of the nine PSC members appeared — Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone and Luther Renee, who are non-voting, ex-officio members of the commission as well as members of the Finance Committee.
The PSC sent Keithley Joseph, executive director, and Claudius Moore, account maintenance director, to answer senators' questions.
Desmond Maynard, commission chair, and a lawyer in private practice, said in a letter that he had a conflicting trial date. Other members indicated a need for specific information requests before they could appear. Donastorg had requested information on the commission's finances with an eye toward budgetary reform for the agency.
Innovative Communication Corp. Senior Vice President Samuel Ebbesen also was invited but did not appear. ICC attorneys Julio Brady and Joel Holt stood in for him.
"A significant portion of the community is not satisfied with the performance of the PSC," Donastorg said.
Renee expanded on the subject later in the hearing. "Hundreds of consumers don't know what their rights are," he said. "They don't even know the PSC exists. They don't know we have a court of last resort for the consumer with a complaint."
Joseph said the PSC has a $611,000 annual budget request, out of which about $350,000 was allotted this fiscal year. Of that, he said, $225,000 has been spent. All PSC funding comes from revenue derived by assessing regulated utilities for rate investigations, Moore said.
Moore also termed the current funding level "sufficient," something Renee and Sen. Ronald Russell took issue with. Moore did say that if policymakers should expand the PSC's responsibilities, more funding would be required.
When the senators asked Joseph what the commission needs to carry out its investigations effectively, he said it needs personnel and that there currently are four vacant positions. He said an investigator and an assistant to the PSC chair are especially needed.
Joseph said: "We are years behind. We don't know what is going on with utility regulations unless we go to seminars. We need more expertise."
Malone said he attended a meeting last month of the National Association of Regulatory Utilities Commissioners. "The V.I. is at a disadvantage from the way the PSC is structured," he said. "We have to find a way to support reforms." He also said it is "ridiculous" that commission members are paid $50 per meeting when they are expected to be familiar with voluminous, highly technical documents.
Malone asked Joseph if any PSC reform legislation had ever been drafted. Joseph said former ex-officio PSC member Sen. Emmett Hansen II had said two years ago that he was working on a draft; however, Joseph said he did not know where it stood. Malone said the current structure and inadequate funding are the main problems facing the PSC.
Renee agreed. "Clearly the effectiveness of the PSC is hampered because it does not have enough money to do what it has to do," he said.
Donastorg told Joseph and Moore that he has pending legislation to put a cap on gasoline prices in the territory, and he wants to make sure the PSC has enough money to carry out the investigation and analyses, should they be necessary.
Joseph and Malone said rate investigations are long, detailed and expensive, especially now that they are mandated every two years. "One is just over before the next one begins," Joseph said.
Brady agreed that rate investigations are time-consuming and costly. And, he said, Innovative Telephone, a subsidiary of ICC, as a regulated utility has to pick up the bill for unregulated companies such as Wireless World — now Choice Communications — when they make an application to the PSC. "Because they are not regulated, they don't have to pay," he said, adding that this gives them an unfair competitive edge over regulated companies.
Innovative Telephone has spent about $2 million on its rate investigations in the last two years, Brady said.
Donastorg questioned that figure. "That seems a little puzzling to me," he said. "It doesn't seem right."
Debate on making dossier public record
Donastorg brought to the hearing a stack of documents about a foot high that he said was the dossier of information ICC hired a private investigator to compile about him, his staff and his family. In connection with that investigation, the senator currently is suing ICC, The Daily News Publishing Co., Jeffrey Prosser and J. Lowe Davis, alleging defamation of character. ICC owns the Daily News, Prosser owns ICC and Davis is executive editor and chief executive officer of the Daily News.
On Tuesday, Donastorg said he wants the PSC to determine whether funds from Innovative Telephone as a regulated company can be used to pay for such an investigation. Holt said that the investigation of the senator was paid for with funds from ICC, not Innovative Telephone.
Donastorg also said at the hearing that he wants to make the dossier public record.
Holt said he thought the release of the documents might be in violation of the law. He also said the investigation was conducted at the request of the V.I. Telephone Corp. — Vitelco, which now is called Innovative Telephone — and should not be released at a legislative hearing.
ICC has countersued Donastorg, and both cases are pending in court.
Brady also said the documents should not be released in a legislative hearing. He said it is an issue in a PSC hearing set for Thursday on St. Croix and that he has filed a motion for clarification to submit the documents to the PSC.
Yvonne Tharpes, legislative legal counsel, said the documents should remain sealed. "My recommendation would be that the Legislature does not release any documents that have to do with investigations," she said.
That, Donastorg countered, was a "matter of opinion." He said he wanted to protect all members of the legislative body. "You are not protected from being investigated, yourselves," he told his colleagues.
V.I. Lottery records subpoenaed
In other action, the committee approved a motion made by Donastorg to subpoena certain documents from the V.I. Lottery Office that he said are needed in order for the committee to carry out its audit of the agency. The motion passed with Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste, Donastorg, Malone, Renee and Russell in favor and Sen. Roosevelt David abstaining.
Austin Andrews, V.I. Lottery executive director, did not attend either of the two Senate Committee of the Whole hearings on video lottery operations last week, although he was invited to testify at both.
Senate efforts to obtain information about V.I. Lottery finances have run into roadblocks.
On Feb. 24, having announced that the Finance Committee would conduct an audit of lottery operations, Donastorg went with a member of the Legislature's post audit staff to the V.I. Lottery St. Thomas offices seeking documents relating to the agency's operations and revenues and details about contracts with game providers. They were turned away at the door on the orders of Government House.
On Jan 28, Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull said at a Senate meeting that she didn't have first-hand knowledge of lottery funds because the money is paid into the V.I. Lottery, not the Finance Department. She said Andrews has unilateral power over the lottery funds — authority he was given by the Legislature until enough seats on the V.I. Lottery Commission are filled to enable the body to attain a quorum.
Donastorg wrote to Bernice Turnbull on Feb. 5 asking her office to provide "all checks and invoices from FY 2000 through the first quarter of FY 2003." The commissioner wrote back on Feb. 18 saying that his request could not be honored &qu
ot;since the V.I. Lottery independently administers its own affairs. Therefore, your request should be forwarded to that entity."
On Tuesday, Donastorg said the V.I. Lottery documents that he has subpoenaed include:
– Copies of the government contracts with Caribbean Lottery Services and the Powerball game providers and all documents relating to the revenues generated by each company.
– Financial statements from December 2001.
– A report of all expenditures incurred from the inception of the Caribbean Lottery Services contract.
– A report of V.I. Lottery receipts and revenues.
Committee members attending the meeting were Sens. Roosevelt David, Donastorg, Norman Jn Baptiste, Malone, Renee and Russell. Sen. Louis Hill was excused. Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who is not on the committee, also was present.

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