Aug. 13, 2004 – A Senate Rules Committee meeting on Thursday took a dramatic turn as three of four nominees Gov. Charles W. Turnbull had sent down for the St. Croix Horse Racing Commission failed to appear. The senators unceremoniously rejected two of the no-shows, and the nominee who did appear came in for a lot of criticism by others present.
The committee voted to hold the nomination Ralph de Chabert after hearing from lawyer Lee Rohn that the Horsemen's Association of St. Croix had filed suit in Territorial Court on Wednesday against the commission and each of its members, alleging that they collected fees and illegally diverted funds for their personal use.
The nominations of Edward Milligan and Bernadette Messer, neither of whom had responded to committee questionnaires, were forwarded to the full Senate with an unfavorable recommendation. The committee chair, Sen. Roosevelt David, said he had received no correspondence from either of them.
The other absent nominee, Kurt Vialet, had written David he would be off-island on Thursday, and the committee also voted to hold his nomination.
Rohn appeared with Horsemen's Association president, Anthony Williams, and its secretary, Rachel Isaac-Canegata. She said their suit alleges the Horse Racing Commission members collected fees and payments from the franchise and lease agreement with Randall "Doc" James Racetrack, failed to account for the funds, and diverted commission funds to their own personal use.
This misappropriation, she said, resulted in losses to the Horsemen's Association members including the lack of ability to race and collect purses, failure to make improvement to the track and the failure to obtain insurance for the track, according to a release from the Legislature.
In his testimony, De Chabert, a retired physician and horse breeder, gave his vision for the future of racing on St. Croix. He said he has been a horse breeder for more than 40 years, is a past president of the Racing Association and has been a member of the commission across four decades.
He told the committee he would like to see proper registration of race horses, prevent illegal administration of medication to horses, and try to make health and insurance and Workers' Compensation benefits available to jockeys, grooms and other track personnel.
Rohn in turn urged the senators not to accept de Chabert's nomination. She said he had done little on the commission, rarely attending meetings. Further, she charged, when he heard of corruption in the commission, he did nothing. She said he showed a lack of interest in accounting for millions of dollars the commission allowed to leave the island as a result of its contract with the now-defunct V.I. Racing Corp., or VIRCO.
She also accused de Chabert of reluctance in dealing with contact violations, failure to improve the racetrack and a conflict of interest with certain members of the association and VIRCO.
The Avis in a Friday report quoted Rohn as saying that "We think de Chabert is a fine gentleman, but his past history does not speak well for him being an active member of the commission." She added, according to The Avis, "If you don't do anything, you're as guilty as the person who took the money."
Commission members are paid $50 per diem plus reasonable travel expenses, as are most members of the V.I. government boards and commissions.
According to The Avis, Sen. Ronald Russell, who is an attorney, advised de Chabert to curtail his responses to Rohn, who was sitting alongside de Chabert at the witness table. De Chabert had begun responding to Rohn's allegations and describing how funds were used. Russell cautioned him, "If I were legal counsel, I would use your testimony against you."
Russell told de Chabert,"Your reputation and standing in the community is as high as anybody's, but in any litigation, it is fair game," The Avis stated.
At a Senate Finance Committee meeting in June, Horse Racing Commission member Elroy Harrison said he hoped St. Croix would have a franchise for the racetrack in effect by September. An agreement is in the works now with Traxco Inc., a subsidiary of Divi Carina Bay Resort. The commission's St. Croix committee has operated on a very lean budget since VIRCO ceased operations in 2002, he said.
The lawsuit filed by Rohn names commission members Harrison, Cherra Heyliger, Robert McIntosh, Edward Milligan and Trevor James.
Harrison is the St. Croix deputy director of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency. According to The Avis, he told the newspaper he couldn't comment on the suit because he had not heard of it. He did say, however, that the commission's financial records have been turned over to the Office of Inspector General at the request of Sen. Emmett Hansen II in his capacity as chair of the Housing, Parks and Recreation Committee.
Source efforts to contact Harrison on Friday morning for comment were unsuccessful.
Committee members attending the hearing were Sen. Roosevelt David, the chair, and Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Louis Hill and Russell. Sens. Lorraine Berry, Carlton Dowe and David Jones were not present. Also attended the meeting were Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste and Shawn-Michael Malone, who are not members of the committee.
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