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JUDGE BLASTS VLT CASE MISINFORMATION TO MEDIA

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March 25, 2003 – An angry Territorial Judge Ive Swan called Southland Gaming and V.I. government attorneys into his courtroom after seeing what he called "scurrilous and damnable lies" in the news media about the settlement of their legal dispute over video lottery operations.
Swan told them he would issue an order preventing either party in the case from filing documents under seal. Administrators familiar with the case said that order could be put into effect by Wednesday morning.
Arturo Watlington, the attorney representing Southland, said Swan ordered both him and Stridiron to appear in court Monday afternoon, demanding to know who was responsible for statements given to reporters over the weekend. Stories appearing in the Source and the V.I. Daily News said Swan had presided over the settlement negotiations.
Swan called Watlington, Attorney General Iver Stridiron and four assistant attorneys general into court Monday and ordered them to testify under oath that Swan had neither presided over the settlement nor given his approval to the final agreement.
Stridiron told the judge that press reports attributed to him concerning the statements were inaccurate. Stridiron said later that he felt Swan was concerned that those reports "were indicating that he somehow officiated over the settlement agreement and he personally approved the settlement, and he emphatically said he had not, and we agreed."
In statements differing from those he had made earlier to reporters, Stridiron said the settlement was put together last Thursday and Friday, with an "agreement in principal" coming Thursday night. Swan's only involvement during that time, Stridiron said, came in a telephone call placed to him on Friday telling him that an agreement had been reached.
"We called him on St. John Friday and told him the matter was settled and that we would be filing a motion to dismiss," Stridiron said. "He said he wanted us to submit it in writing."
Watlington said the judge also was angry about statements to the press, attributed to both sides, that the settlement had been sealed by the court. "This document was not a court document. That's why the judge got so angry," Watlington said.
On Sunday, when asked about the terms of the settlement, Stridiron replied that he could not discuss it under penalty of law. "I cannot speak about that because the agreement has been sealed by the court, and if I were to divulge that, it would violate the settlement agreement," he said then.
According to former Territorial Court Judge Soraya Diase, a document gets sealed by the court only after a request is made "verbally or in writing by lawyers to the judge." She said: "The judge would review the reasons and decide. Once a document is sealed, it cannot be unsealed without the authority of the court."
To open a document under seal of the court without permission could result in charges of contempt of court, Diase said. Lawyers will sometimes submit a sealed document to the court without a judge's order, "but that doesn't mean it's sealed," she said.
A Territorial Court clerk familiar with the Southland vs. V.I. government case who spoke on condition of not being named said attorneys for both sides had submitted sealed documents. According to a report in Tuesday's Daily News, the sealed documents would probably be returned to the respective parties once Swan signed a new order prohibiting their submission.
Stridiron said the government submitted its documents in anticipation of an order from the court which never came. "The other matter was whether the judge agreed to accept them under seal, and he didn't," the attorney general said.
A bench trial in the case was set to begin Monday with Swan presiding. But at a pretrial hearing last Thursday, Swan demanded that depositions be submitted by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, his legal counsel Paul Gimenez, and his confidential assistant Horace Brooks, stating what they knew about the agreement that allowed Southland to install video lottery terminals in the territory. The settlement talks got under way before any action was taken regarding such depositions.
Developers and regulators of casino gaming on St Croix and numerous citizen groups have objected to the introduction of the gaming machines in the St. Thomas-St. John district, saying they represent a form of unregulated gambling which presents unfair competition to casino gambling, which is legal only on St. Croix. Opponents of video lottery terminals have staged several public protests of the 24th Legislature's action in its final session, last Dec. 23, overriding an earlier veto by Turnbull of a bill legalizing VLT''s in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
Southland Gaming, which was contracted by the V.I. Lottery in 1998 to install VLT's in the territory once they became legal, sued the government to halt efforts at preventing it from doing so. The Attorney General's Office countersued challenging the validity of the contract.
A bill before the 25th Legislature would repeal the law legalizing VLT's. On Tuesday, one of its sponsors, Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards, pointed to the events in Territorial Court as proof that the time for lawmakers to act on repeal has come.
"Given the pronounced settlement of the 'court case' between Southland Gaming and the government of the Virgin Islands, it becomes evidently clear that the ball is now in the court of the legislative branch of government," Richards, a St. Croix senator, said in a letter written Tuesday to Senate President David Jones.
Richards called on Jones to place the repeal bill on the agenda of the next Senate session.

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