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ABRAMSON STANDING TRIAL ALONE

The trial of influential St. Croix business owner and former Public Works Commissioner Ann Abramson went into its second day Tuesday after prosecuting and defense attorneys painted highly different pictures of her in their opening remarks.
What was to have been the prosecution of both Abramson and St. Croix contractor Berthill Thomas on charges relating to Hurricane Marilyn repair work turned into a case against Abramson only. As jury selection was about to begin Monday for the proceedings in U.S. District Court on St. Thomas, Thomas entered a plea of guilty to making a false statement in return for the three other charges against him being dropped.
Abramson and Thomas between them faced federal grand jury charges of conspiracy, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, making false claims to federal officials, making false statements within the jurisdiction of a federal agency, aiding and abetting, conflict of interest and, in Abramson's case, tax fraud.
In an earlier trial, the jury deadlocked on nine charges against Abramson; Thomas was convicted of three charges.
Jury selection for Abramson's new trial took most of Monday. The jury of 11 women and four men began hearing opening statements at about 3:15 p.m. in the court of District Judge Thomas K. Moore.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julien Adams, representing both the United States and the Virgin Islands, cited a V.I. Code provision that "public officials are expected to set high standards of ethical behavior with utmost integrity and loyalty to public interest." Abramson as commissioner failed to do so, he said.
"Hurricanes are a way of life here," Adams said. "The community suffers and reacts in one of two ways," either pulling together to help one another or looking out for themselves to the disregard of everyone else.
"Ann Abramson, with the power invested in her, used the disaster of Hurricane Marilyn to profit for herself," he said.
Adams said he would prove that Abramson and Thomas in collusion overcharged the V.I. government thousands of dollars for building repairs. He cited the repair of the Arthur A.
Richards Junior High School roof, for which Thomas was paid $83,639.20, and repair of the roof on the building housing the Finance Department on St. Thomas, for which Thomas initially billed the government for $47,400 but was paid $40,000. Adams also vowed to prove that Abramson filed a false income tax claim.
Defense attorney Michael Joseph countered that the government had "falsely accused a 74-year-old woman of crimes she never committed."
He said Abramson, a Frederiksted native, had been "for the people and a worker all her life." She started out selling fruit, vegetables and cakes while still in school, he said, pumped gas, became a social worker and eventually got into the transportation business, owning her own bus, taxi and heavy equipment companies.
He said she was asked by Gov. Roy L. Schneider to be his Public Works commissioner because she was "somebody who could get things done."
Abramson's other defense attorney, L. Schoenbach, said she was a person who "got out in the field and worked with her people," citing her assistance to schools after Hurricane Marilyn. He said she left financial matters to her accountant.
The first witness called was Gwendolyn Adams, Finance commissioner from February 1995 through November 1996. She said when she became aware of discrepancies in the billing for the Finance building roof repairs, she contacted Abramson because Abramson had brought Thomas to meet her and had recommended him for the job.
Adams said that Finance employee Walter Challenger, liaison to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was in charge of overseeing the roof repairs. She said Challenger told her the bill was inflated and the work was "patchwork."
Adams said she never approved the work, and that in her absence, her deputy, Alicia Austin, signed the check paying Thomas. The check was picked up by Public Works Assistant Commissioner George Phillips on a day when Adams said she was in a meeting at Government House.
The grand jury indictment states that Thomas told Challenger the bill was inflated because he had to give some of the money to Abramson.
In the earlier trial on charges relating to the hurricane repairs, the jury deadlocked on nine charges against Abramson, convicted Thomas of three charges each of making a false statement and making false claims to a federal agency, and acquitted him of attempting to bribe a public official — Challenger. A grand jury subsequently handed up a superseding 15-count indictment, which included six new charges against Abramson and two against Thomas.
The earlier convictions of Thomas were not affected by the superseding indictment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hugh P. Mabe said, and the one count to which the contractor pleaded guilty Monday concerned repairs to the Arthur Richards School roof.
Judge Moore said he expected the trial to continue through Friday.

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