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HomeNewsLocal newsJudge Sets Hearing Over Attorney Dispute in Barnes Case

Judge Sets Hearing Over Attorney Dispute in Barnes Case

The Almeric L. Christian Federal Building on St. Croix. (Source photo by Linda Morland)
The Almeric L. Christian Federal Building on St. Croix. (Source photo by Linda Morland)

District Court Chief Judge Robert Molloy has ordered a hearing on Aug. 17 to determine whether former Casino Control Commission contractor Stephanie Barnes will represent herself at her sentencing on Aug. 25, or whether her court-appointed attorney will be mandated to stay on the case despite filing a motion to withdraw.

Miguel Oppenheimer — Barnes’s sixth attorney — filed the motion July 4, saying that Barnes fired him when he tried to visit her July 3 at the Federal Detention Center in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, where she has been held since shortly after she was found guilty in December 2021 of conspiracy to commit theft from programs receiving federal funds, receipt of government property, and filing a false tax return.

“Mrs. Barnes rejected the legal visit and told undersigned she did not want us to represent her in the case anymore that we were ‘fired’ and she had requested the Court for new legal representation,” according to Oppenheimer’s motion.

On Tuesday, Molloy ordered a hearing on the matter, but noted that while an indigent defendant has a right to request a new court-appointed counsel, they must demonstrate there is “good cause” for doing so, and signaled he is not sympathetic to Barnes’ latest request.

“Absent such a showing, the Court may reject the indigent defendant’s request and ‘insist that the defendant choose between representation by h[er] existing counsel and proceeding pro se,’” meaning representing herself, said Molloy, citing United States v. Welty.

“Good cause” would include a conflict of interest, a complete breakdown of communication, or an irreconcilable conflict with the attorney, Molloy said in his order.

“The good cause standard is demanding and will not be satisfied simply because the defendant disagrees with counsel’s trial strategy or because the defendant and the attorney do not get along,” according to the order. “Moreover, the Third Circuit has determined that a defendant’s unilateral refusal to cooperate with court-appointed counsel will not warrant a substitution either.”

In addition, “the good cause analysis also demands consideration of the countervailing governmental interest, such as the efficient administration of criminal justice and the rights of other defendants awaiting trial or sentencing who may be prejudiced by a continuance resulting from the appointment of new counsel,” Molloy wrote. “Accordingly, the Court may deny a request for substitution of counsel if the Court determines that the request was ‘made in bad faith, for purposes of delay or to subvert judicial proceedings.'”

After reviewing a pro se motion that Barnes filed in May, seeking to vacate her conviction, Oppenheimer’s allegations that Barnes refused to meet with him to prepare for the sentencing, “and considering the fact that Barnes has now had six different attorneys during the course of this case, the Court questions whether Barnes has a good faith basis for requesting new counsel at this juncture,” said Molloy.

Moreover, her argument that Oppenheimer has failed to provide effective representation “also appears to be a bit wanting at first blush,” the order states. “While Barnes claims that she has had extreme difficulty getting in touch with Attorney Oppenheimer, she acknowledges that within the first eight weeks of Attorney Oppenheimer’s appointment to the case, the two of them had already had two meetings. Furthermore, the record indicates that Attorney Oppenheimer has attempted to meet with Barnes since then,” it said.

While Barnes is guaranteed the right to counsel, that does not entitle her to a “special rapport, confidence, or even a meaningful relationship with appointed counsel,” said Molloy, citing case law. “Therefore, Barnes likely will need to provide additional evidence in order to demonstrate that Attorney Oppenheimer’s conduct warrants appointing a new attorney.”

While he has set a hearing in the matter, “the Court would like to take a moment to inform Barnes that if the Court ultimately finds no good cause for a substitution, she will have two choices moving forward,” said Molloy.

The first option will be for Oppenheimer to continue representing Barnes through sentencing, which will require her to cooperate with counsel, said Molloy. The second option would be for Barnes to waive her right to counsel and proceed pro se, i.e., represent herself at sentencing.

“Given the extensive delays that have already occurred in this case, the Court will not entertain any other options that would unduly delay the sentencing in this matter,” Molloy ruled.

The hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 17 in Courtroom 2 of the District Court on St. Croix.

Sentencing for Barnes, so far rescheduled six times, is slated for 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 25 after Molloy granted another extension on April 14. He said then that a hearing will be held the same day on a motion Barnes filed in March 2022 seeking acquittal or a new trial, claiming she was an unwitting victim of former Casino Control Commission Chairwoman Violet Anne Golden’s profligate spending.

Golden hired Barnes in 2015 to work as a consultant, developing programs to help people with gambling addictions. According to court documents, they took close to $300,000 in funds approved for agency operations and spent it on lavish trips, clothing, entertainment, and other unapproved items.

The irregularities in spending and administrative functions were brought to light by an investigation of the V.I. Inspector General’s Office in 2018, which led to an FBI investigation. Barnes and Golden were subsequently arrested in July 2019.

Under a plea deal, Golden pleaded guilty in January 2020 to misappropriating $295,503 of government funds. She was sentenced in August that year to 24 months and was released in September 2021. She testified at Barnes’ trial on behalf of the prosecution.

If given the maximum sentence, Barnes could face 10 years in prison.

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