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Judge Sets Court Date for Stephanie Barnes, and Rules She Will Represent Herself

V.I. District Court Chief Judge Robert Molloy has set a court date of Dec. 8 for Stephanie Barnes — the former Casino Control Commission contractor convicted in December 2021 of conspiracy to commit theft from programs receiving federal funds — and ordered that going forward she will represent herself after firing her sixth attorney.

Stephanie Barnes (Source file photo)

The hearing, in District Court on St. Croix, will consider Barnes’ March 2022 motion for acquittal and, if necessary, her sentencing, Molloy said in his order filed Tuesday in V.I. District Court.

In his order, Molloy denied Barnes’ request for a new attorney after she fired court-appointed counsel Miguel Oppenheimer, who filed a motion to withdraw from the case at a hearing in August, citing a breakdown in communication with his client.

During that hearing, “the Court found that the relationship between Attorney Oppenheimer and Barnes had deteriorated beyond repair and, therefore, Attorney Oppenheimer’s continued representation of Barnes would not serve the interest of justice. Accordingly, in its sound discretion, the Court permitted Attorney Oppenheimer to withdraw from the case,” Molloy wrote in his order on Tuesday.

“Although the Court found it appropriate for Attorney Oppenheimer to withdraw, the Court ultimately determined the circumstances did not support appointing new counsel in his stead. The Court concluded that Barnes failed to demonstrate good cause that would warrant appointing a new attorney,” Molloy said.

“While there was certainly evidence of a significant breakdown in communication between Barnes and Attorney Oppenheimer, the Court found that Barnes’ unilateral refusal to cooperate with counsel ultimately led to the untenable attorney-client relationship. Since a defendant is not entitled to a substitution of counsel when the defendant causes the breakdown in the attorney-client relationship, the Court concluded that the circumstances in this case did not support the appointment of a new attorney for the defendant,” the judge ordered.

Though Barnes indicated she did not wish to proceed pro se in the upcoming proceedings — meaning representing herself — the court had previously made clear to her that her Sixth Amendment right to counsel was not absolute and could be waived or forfeited by an affirmative request or conduct, said Molloy.

“Despite the Court’s warning prior to the hearing that an unreasonable refusal to cooperate with Attorney Oppenheimer could cause Barnes to lose her right to counsel, she still refused to work with Attorney Oppenheimer in good faith,” Molloy wrote. “Thus, after carefully considering Barnes’ grievances and accusations regarding Attorney Oppenheimer’s representation and determining the claims lacked merit, the Court concluded that Barnes’ repeated and unreasonable demands for new counsel and her complete refusal to work with Attorney Oppenheimer amounted to an effective waiver of the right to counsel.”

Barnes’ hearing was last set to take place on Aug. 25, but in a last-minute appeal Oppenheimer sought a delay due to new sentencing guidelines for non-violent, first-time offenders that are set to go into effect on Nov. 1.

Oppenheimer “indicated that he believed the provision would likely apply in Barnes’ case,” Molloy noted at the time, and agreed to the delay.

Sentencing for Barnes, 64, who claims she was an unwitting victim of former Casino Control Commission chairwoman Violet Anne Golden’s profligate spending, has now been rescheduled eight times. She has had almost as many lawyers, too, since her arrest in 2019.

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.

Under the current sentencing guidelines Barnes, who has been held at a federal detention facility in Puerto Rico since she was found guilty at trial in December 2021, could face 10 years in prison.

However, Barnes has no previous convictions, and her crime did not involve weapons, violence, or a sexual offense, all of which could reduce her sentence under the new guidelines.

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