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Judicial Inquiry into Detainee’s Prolonged Incarceration After Case Dismissal

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In a startling case of bureaucratic oversight, Michael Gomez-Belardo was held in custody nearly a year past the dismissal of his charges by the court, prompting the Bureau of Corrections (BOC) to implement new procedural safeguards.

An internal probe was launched by the BOC after the alarming realization that Gomez-Belardo remained incarcerated despite Magistrate Ernest Morris Jr.’s order for his release in late September of the previous year. The dismissed charges related to a misdemeanor trespassing incident had seemingly been lost in administrative processes, leading to the unwarranted extension of Gomez-Belardo’s time behind bars.

In a written statement, Magistrate Morris Jr. had cleared Gomez-Belardo on September 30, 2022, stating that any bail posted should be returned and all conditions of release lifted, with immediate effect. This directive was also shared with pertinent departments, including the Department of Justice and the BOC, with instructions to distribute it to all related parties.

However, it was not until September 19, 2023, that the BOC stumbled upon the error, resulting in Gomez-Belardo’s release. The oversight prompted a court-issued “show cause” order in October, demanding the BOC to clarify the reasons behind the delay and justify why they should not face contempt charges.

The subsequent investigation unveiled that the order for Gomez-Belardo’s release had indeed reached the intended parties, including the then-warden of the John A. Bell Correctional Facility, Ben Adams, via email. Despite processing another inmate’s release outlined in the same communication, Adams did not facilitate Gomez-Belardo’s discharge, an omission attributed to oversight.

As the incident came to light, it was noted that Adams had vacated his position in April, prior to the inquiry, with Dana Grant stepping in as the Acting Warden. Both Gomez-Belardo and his legal counsel, who were in receipt of the release order, did not report his continued detention.

In the wake of this incident, the BOC has overhauled its protocol. The process now mandates a dual-signature requirement involving the classifications supervisor to affirm the execution of release orders. Furthermore, court orders are now disseminated to a broader array of BOC officials, diluting the concentration of responsibility.

These reforms, as disclosed by BOC Assistant Director Riel Faulkner in an affidavit, predated the discovery of Gomez-Belardo’s plight and were partly in response to a separate incident involving the accidental release of a different detainee in 2022.

BOC representatives are set to present a comprehensive account of the missteps to the court in an upcoming session.

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Government

Marijuana Regulations Approved in the U.S. Virgin Islands

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The U.S. Virgin Islands has taken a significant leap forward in its cannabis program with Governor Albert Bryan Jr.’s approval of comprehensive rules and regulations governing marijuana use and distribution. The announcement was made during a press briefing on Tuesday by Government House Communications Director Richard Motta.

The newly sanctioned regulations establish a structured framework for both medicinal and adult use of cannabis. This dual approach aims to facilitate recreational cannabis use under regulated conditions while ensuring its availability for therapeutic purposes. According to Mr. Motta, the regulatory environment “provides special protections and benefits to medicinal cannabis users.”

Previously available in draft form for public comment, the regulations detail the process for obtaining various licenses and certifications necessary for participating in the cannabis industry. These roles include designated caregivers, prescribing physicians, licensees, third-party vendors, and consultants. Mr. Motta emphasized the importance of contacting the Office of Cannabis Regulation for those interested in getting involved.

Governor Bryan has expressed pride in the legislative and executive efforts that led to these comprehensive regulations. Notably, the Virgin Islands is the first U.S. jurisdiction to allow for the sacramental use of cannabis, recognizing its cultural significance. “With a closed economy such as ours, the governor believes it is important to provide opportunities for residents to participate in the program, whether as business owners, partners, employees, or patients,” added Motta.

In addition to facilitating legal cannabis use, the regulations address past injustices related to cannabis convictions. The new rules include provisions for the automatic expungement of certain cannabis-related crimes, enabling individuals previously marginalized due to past convictions to participate in the legal cannabis market. This initiative is part of a broader effort to promote social equity within the industry.

The governor’s approval marks the culmination of a long process of drafting and vetting. The regulations have been reviewed for legal sufficiency and are now ready for implementation. “For those of you who have been eagerly anticipating the rules and regulations for the adult use and medicinal cannabis rollout in the territory, they have officially been completed,” announced Motta.

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Bryan Names Kevin Rodriguez as Interim Island Administrator for St. Thomas/Water Island District

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Governor Albert Bryan Jr. has appointed Kevin Rodriguez, his former deputy chief of staff, as the Interim Island Administrator for the St. Thomas/Water Island District. This change follows Administrator Avery Lewis’s decision to pursue a seat in the 36th Legislature of the Virgin Islands.

Under Virgin Islands law (Title 18, Chapter 1, Subsection 2 of the Virgin Islands Code), candidates for the Virgin Islands Legislature must take a leave of absence from their government positions from the date they file their nomination petition until the general election concludes. Lewis filed his nomination papers on May 22, prompting the need for this interim leadership adjustment.

“Avery Lewis has been a dedicated and committed servant to the St. Thomas/Water Island district. Although we will miss his contributions in his current role, we support his decision to run for the Legislature and wish him success in his future endeavors,” Governor Bryan said.

Rodriguez’s appointment as Interim Island Administrator is backed by his extensive experience in public administration and his deep understanding of the community’s needs and challenges. Gov’t House officials believe his leadership will ensure a smooth continuation of services during this transitional period.

“I am confident that Kevin Rodriguez will effectively assist the residents of St. Thomas and Water Island during this time of transition. His proven record of effective management and community engagement makes him well-suited to advance our progress,” Governor Bryan added.

The governor expressed his gratitude to both Lewis for his service and Rodriguez for stepping into this vital role at a significant time for the islands.

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Central Government Staff Honored at Employee of the Year Ceremony

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The Government of the Virgin Islands recently celebrated its most outstanding employees in a series of ceremonies on St. Croix and St. Thomas. More than 6,000 government employees were eligible, but only a select few were honored for their exceptional service and contributions to their divisions and the community.

At the ceremony in St. Croix, Division of Personnel Director Cindy Richardson highlighted the critical role these employees play in enhancing the operations of their agencies and improving the quality of life across the territory. She lauded the honorees for their exemplary service and professionalism.

Governor Albert Bryan Jr. dispelled the notion that government workers are lackadaisical, instead praising the honorees for their dedication and impact. “You are pretty special,” he affirmed, acknowledging their positive influence within the community and among their colleagues.

Senate President Novelle Francis identified the honorees as the “cream of the crop,” and spotlighted Alfred Donowa, the employee of the year from the facilities management division in St. Croix. Donowa was praised for setting a high standard for his team. In St. Thomas, Adele Thomas was recognized as the employee of the year for her role as a receptionist in the Legislature’s offices.

The Lieutenant Governor Tregenza Roach also took part in the celebrations, commending employees like Carmen Francis from the Real Property Tax Division for her exceptional customer service, and Chris George from the Geographic Information Systems Division for his leadership.

The ceremonies not only recognized the honorees’ professional excellence but also their passion for their roles within the government. Lieutenant Governor Roach emphasized the importance of ongoing professional development to maintain job satisfaction and retain valuable staff.

The list of honorees included individuals from various departments such as Rachel Haverkorn of the Office of the Governor and Marianne Navarro from the Virgin Islands Lottery. From the Department of Agriculture, Maxine Richards was honored, and from the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, Diana Gumbs took the title. Belgrave Stedman was recognized from the Water and Power Authority, celebrated for his achievements despite public skepticism about the utility’s successes.

These ceremonies serve as a vital reminder of the dedicated individuals who contribute significantly to the functioning and improvement of government services in the Virgin Islands.

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