Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory on Monday announced that the V.I. Legislature will establish a Committee on Ethical Conduct by week’s end to probe reports that Sen. Marvin Blyden, a frequent top vote-getter on St. Thomas, flouted protocol after twice testing positive for COVID-19.
It is the second probe Blyden faces after Government House confirmed an investigation earlier in the day by the V.I. Justice Department.
“As a result of the situation surrounding Senate Majority Leader Marvin Blyden, a meeting was held with Senate Vice President Novelle E. Francis Jr. and Senate Secretary Genevieve Whitaker. It has been determined that the matter warrants the establishment of a Committee on Ethical Conduct pursuant to the rules of the 34th Legislature,” Frett-Gregory said in a statement released Monday evening.
According to Frett-Gregory “leadership have filed a formal complaint to the Committee on Ethical Conduct. The Committee on Ethical Conduct will be responsible for investigating the allegations and making a final determination on this matter. The committee will convene by the end of this week.”
Late Monday night, Blyden released his own statement apologizing for his “terrible” lapse of judgement and for failing to properly set an example as a community leader, but he maintained that he would never knowingly expose others to COVID-19 or any other disease.
Blyden, who is fully vaccinated, took a rapid antigen test at the V.I. Legislature Tuesday morning, and again later that day at the Health Department, and both of them came back positive, according to his statement.
Then on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Blyden took three different rapid tests, administered at home, which showed negative results. Blyden said one of the tests shows an erroneous date of July 16, 2021, instead of Sept. 16.
“I realized that either there had been some false positives on Tuesday, or that I had been an asymptomatic person who had already gone through the course of the disease and was in the very last days of the virus when I was tested on Tuesday,” Blyden said.
Blyden proceeded to attend a scheduled meeting Saturday night with “potential investors who had already flown down for the meeting,” where he potentially affected scores of others.
“Regardless of what I believed or even knew, I should have followed the guidelines set by the Department of Health and the CDC. Plain and simple, regardless of my intentions, my actions were wrong,” Blyden said.
Frett-Gregory, in her statement, said the 34th Legislature instituted COVID-19 protocols “to protect senators, employees and the public from the spread of the coronavirus.”
“This matter is extremely serious in nature, and we have to ensure the public that we take the coronavirus pandemic seriously,” she said.
“We cannot hold senators to different standards, if anything, senators must be held to a higher standard, as we represent the people of the territory.”
What’s the punishment?
At Monday’s Government House press briefing, Government House and Health confirmed that a probe is underway into Sen. Blyden’s actions.
Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion was asked for comment on the allegations surrounding the public official, given that his constituents are being asked to follow these same COVID protocols.
“Just as you are not exempt from catching COVID, you are not exempt from following the guidance that Department of Health and Gov. Bryan has put in place,” Encarnacion said .
She cited a personal example of having to quarantine following the positive COVID test result from Education Commissioner Raquel Berry-Benjamin, who she said is “healing well.”
“I don’t care who you are in the territory, public health is all of our business. I think we are all responsible for the health and safety of the person that’s next to you,” Encarnacion said.
Both she and Richard Motta, spokesperson for Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., responded to questions as to whether Blyden is likely to face a fine for flouting the law in light of the public health emergency.
“We don’t have anything on the books legally that speaks to an individual who is violating a public health order, let’s say, for example, an order by the Department of Health to quarantine for 10 days,” Motta said.
Actually, there is.
According to V.I. Code, Title 14, Chapter 43, Subsection 886, “whoever willfully exposes himself or another afflicted with any contagious or infectious disease in any public place or thoroughfare, except in his necessary removal in a manner the least dangerous to the public health, shall be fined not more than $200 or imprisoned not more than 1 year, or both.”
Although the section of the law was cited for Motta, he implied that Bryan’s executive order supersedes it.
“We have what was put forward in the executive order, and you just read something from the Virgin Islands Code, that speaks to an infectious disease. It doesn’t clearly define what that is, and what can be prosecuted by a court of law, in terms of, it doesn’t provide any further guidelines other than what you read, so the law is vague and it needs to be clearly defined,” Motta said.
When asked about the law, Encarnacion cited the ongoing probe.
“As Director Motta has been saying, of course you have to do a lot of investigation, and that being said, the investigation is actually ongoing, and because of that, I am unable to comment,” she said.
The governor’s spokesperson, however, had more to say.
“The Department of Health and the COVID-19 taskforce has a certain responsibility and here everyone is entitled to due process,” Motta said. “I want to make clear to you and the listening public, there’s an assumption that an investigation isn’t underway here, and I want to say that is certainly not the case. Thank you commissioner for making that point.”
This isn’t the first time the Blyden family name has been mired in a public controversy.
The senator’s adult son, 27-year-old Kahlid Blyden, was charged with possession of an unlicensed firearm, possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, and possession of ammunition on Aug. 21, 2020.
The sentencing guidelines recommended that the younger Blyden serve no more than six months behind bars, but in a plea deal, he was sentenced instead to only four years of probation. In addition, he was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and complete 150 hours of community service.
Frett-Gregory, reached following her statement, said that Tuesday’s testing at the V.I. Legislature, where Blyden received his first positive result, was routine.
“Prior to entering the chamber for a Committee of the Whole session, all senators and staff undergo COVID-19 testing, either provided by the Department of Health, or we also have self-testing kits available,” she explained.
The Senate president was unable to verify how many of her colleagues are fully vaccinated.
“A number of us were vaccinated early on, four to five of us went in January. We have inquired with other senators, but some have said it is personal preference, and have not shared that information,” Frett-Gregory said.