Buckley exploring mandatory background checks for Senate job applicants

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ST. CROIX - Sen. Judi Buckley, whose staff researcher was hauled away in handcuffs from her Frederiksted office last month after being arrested for failure to register as a sex offender, said she is looking into legislation requiring background checks for Senate staff.

Jury selection and trial has been scheduled for Christopher Mitchell, 44, of Work and Rest, who was arrested Feb. 19.

The former V.I. Legislature employee appeared before Federal Magistrate Judge George Cannon to be arraigned on a single count of failure to register as a sexual offender and entered a plea of not guilty.

Mitchell requested a speedy jury trial, which has been scheduled tentatively for April 14 before District Judge Raymond Finch.

Since Mitchell's arrest, Buckley has moved forward with terminating Mitchell, who has worked as a researcher for the senator since January 2013 when she took office as a member of the 30th Legislature.

Mitchell's 1988 conviction in Florida for having indecent contact with a girl younger than 16 came to light after someone placed an anonymous phone call to the Legislature, according to Legislature Executive Director Iver Stridiron.

According to the National Sex Offender Registry, Mitchell began registering after his last conviction up until 2012, when he moved to the territory.

Stridiron said days after the arrest that Mitchell lied on his application before he began working for Buckley. Mitchell specifically was asked on the application whether he had ever been convicted of any sexual offenses against a minor and whether he had ever been convicted of a felony or first-degree misdemeanor and answered in the negative to both, Stridiron said.

The Legislature does not have a policy to verify information that is attested to on job applications.

Buckley said she had not been informed about the anonymous call or the ongoing investigation and had no knowledge of Mitchell's criminal history until he was arrested last month.

She said it was a very unfortunate situation, but she would have conducted her own background check had she been notified that there may have been a problem.

Buckley said she has started to research legislation that would make it mandatory to conduct background checks for job applicants.

At the time of Mitchell's arrest, Stridiron said he notified the V.I. Attorney General's Office after the anonymous phone call, and a six-month investigation resulted in Mitchell's arrest.

Since then, Stridiron has not returned calls to The Daily News seeking clarification about whether there was anything that prohibited his office from launching its own investigation or conducting an online background check to confirm the reports or shed light on the situation.

Attorney General Vincent Frazer said the process usually does not take six months and his office realizes the risks that existed during the delay, including Mitchell's exposure to students at two nearby schools and a housing community.

Frazer said unusual circumstances in Mitchell's case caused the process of investigating the claim about Mitchell to be drawn out. He said when his office first was contacted, they moved forward with the vague tip and confirmed that Mitchell was not current on the Virgin Islands registry and had never registered locally.

From there, Frazer said, before his office could take action, they had to confirm that Mitchell had been convicted and then contact the area that had jurisdiction over his conviction.

Stridiron said the information from the areas where Mitchell was convicted and the ongoing communication was slow and during that time he had a change in the part-time staff, which resulted in slower or no progress on following up on the inquiry.

"There was a lot of coordination that needed to be done between our office and the stateside office to ensure that the information was accurate," he said.

Stridiron said just knowing that someone has a sexual assault conviction is not enough to confirm that they should have registered because there are different registering requirements for different offenders, ranging from the frequency of their updates to how long they have to register.

Frazer said he has since placed a full-time coordinator to aggressively handle inquiries and updates to the sexual offender registry so cases are handled faster and more efficiently

He said it is unfortunate that such an inquiry took a matter of months before action was taken, but moving forward, with his department's recent connection to the national registry and its ability to share information online with federal agencies, a similar check could be completed in a matter of days.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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