Before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 100 supporters, former Gov. Roy L. Schneider defended himself Thursday against criminal charges of fraud, conspiracy and falsification of records filed against him Tuesday by Attorney General Iver Stridiron.
In an hour-long public forum that was broadcast by radio station WSTA and paid for by Schneider, the former governor declared that "politics is what this is all about a failing administration needs distraction." This assessment drew much cheering and hand-clapping from the crowd gathered in Bluebeard Hotel's Town Hall.
Attorneys Ivan S. Fisher of New York and Joseph Arellano of the St. Thomas firm of Campbell, Arellano and Rich defended the former chief executive. They stated time and again that once a state of emergency is declared by federal and local law, the governor is authorized to "take responsibility for any action he deems necessary."
Fisher began by suggesting that the government go back to other tumultuous times in the Vietnam War when Dr. Schneider operated on more than 100 victims in one day.
"Do you think he was asked to fill out a form then?" Fisher asked.
These, too, were special times, he said, just like the island's state of emergency after Hurricane Marilyn.
"Nobody said, 'where's the form' then," Fisher said, "so why should they now?"
He said he had searched in vain through the charging documents filed in the government's case against Schneider for any allegation of financial gain on Schneider's part. "There is none," he said.
Arellano said he and Schneider have been trying to get together with the attorney general since December 1999 when Schneider was notified that an audit of his expenses was under way. Arellano read from a long letter he had written, and which he said was hand-delivered to Stridiron on Feb. 14, the day before formal charges were filed.
The letter detailed correspondence between himself and Deputy Inspector General Susan Andrews regarding payments Schneider is said to have authorized for lodging of government officials at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort. Arellano said he had asked for documents supporting the office's investigation, but had not received them. The letter for the most part detailed Schneider's medical career and his accomplishments as governor.
Arellano said that though Stridiron has claimed no "politics are involved," he disagrees. His statement brought the first of many rounds of applause that punctuated the session.
Arellano cited again the powers of the governor in a state of emergency in particular parts of the V.I. Code that give the governor the power to make provisions for availability and use of temporary emergency housing. This statement too received much applause from the partisan crowd.
Arellano said that "in emergencies you don't do things quite the same way — you don't always dot the i's and cross the t's." He added, "Keep your eyes on this section and stay tuned because a lot of this will come out in the weeks to come."
Concluding his address, Arellano said, "God forbid we should have another hurricane. Who would take care of us?" This was met by a standing ovation and a chorus of "We Shall Overcome" by the Schneider supporters, as the former governor was introduced.
In a relatively brief speech, Schneider said that "nowhere in the information filed is there any allegation of financial gain on my part, nor should there be." He said that, contrary to Stridiron's remarks, "politics is what it is about. A failing administration needs distraction." This, too, was met with thunderous applause from his supporters.
Schneider said he would not have his reputation, nor that of his colleagues, stained. "If it comes to court, you will see us all sitting together," he said.
His reference was to the three officials charged along with him — Alvin Battiste, former and until Wednesday director of budget and management for the governor's office; Maureen Bryan, Schneider's executive assistant; and Dean Wallace, former acting Finance commissioner.
Schneider concluded by stating, "The Lord is my fortress, and we shall be vindicated."
In question, among other charges, is a room at Frenchman's Reef occupied by Walter Brunner but rented in the name of then government spokesperson Jean Greaux.
Though both Fisher and Arellano cited the state of emergency as reason for not keeping accurate accounts, the affidavit shows that the payment of $67,076 — including $36,272.95 for the room in question — was made not during the state of emergency but three years later. It was signed by Schneider on Oct. 29, 1998, according to the document and the payment was made Dec. 29, 1998, days before he left office.
During questioning from the press, Fisher said the room in question at Frenchman's Reef was an "operations center, a press room." He said that a paper error by the accounting office at Frenchman's Reef had "probably" created the misunderstanding of just whose name the room was rented under. He indicated it wasn't important where Brunner slept, and denied charges that Brunner was a "close friend and tenant of Gov. Schneider."
"The governor knew him," Fisher said, "but he was not a close, personal friend who would come to dinner."
Fisher called the charges an attempt to "retrospective nit-pick."
Asked what had happened to Paulette Rabsatt, the employee who allegedly disapproved the payment of the room charges and was subsequently fired, Fisher said he didn't know and would have to look into that.
Arellano said he planned to file a motion "later today" to have the charges dismissed.
Editor's note: For a related story on the "Friends of Roy" there to cheer him on, see People.