At a court hearing Tuesday morning, a magistrate judge found probable cause for four of five criminal charges filed against a man who admitted to forging fake COVID-19 test results so he and his wife could travel to St. Croix.
The case is the first test of the territory’s crackdown on fraudulent use of the online travel portal, which is meant to screen incoming travelers. At a press briefing at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. cited the arrest as proof of the government’s commitment to keeping Virgin Islanders safe from the ongoing pandemic.
The defendant, Clifford Harrison Mattson, 54, of Annaly Estate, was arrested Saturday and initially charged with five crimes — making fraudulent claims upon the government, accessing a computer for fraudulent purposes, use of false information, failing or recording forged instruments, and sending or delivering false messages.
At Mattson’s advice-of-rights hearing Tuesday morning, Magistrate Judge Ernest Morris Jr. did not find probable cause for the fifth charge because the statute regarding sending or delivering false messages specifically says the victim must be a “person” or corporation as defined by the law — not the government.
Mattson’s defense attorneys, Yohana Manning and Akeel St. Jean, argued strenuously that the government had failed to submit enough evidence to sustain any of the charges. But Morris said that Assistant V.I. Attorney General Patricia Lynn Pryor had met the burden of proof to pursue prosecution of the other four crimes, which collectively carry a maximum possible penalty of 13 years in prison and a maximum $7,500 fine upon conviction.
Public health v. privacy concerns
For more than an hour Tuesday morning, the attorneys raised various Constitutional, privacy, and public health concerns during questioning of the arresting officer, Wanson Harris, director of environmental health for the V.I. Health Department.
According to an affidavit filed by Harris, he received a text message from V.I. Police Commissioner Trevor Velinor at around 10:45 a.m. Saturday morning saying that two individuals, including Mattson, had boarded a flight from Miami to Rohlsen Airport. Mattson was traveling with his wife, whose name is redacted from the affidavit and who has not been charged in the case.
Harris was traveling on that same plane, and responded to Velinor’s text message at around 1:35 p.m. when the plane landed on St. Croix.
Harris made contact with Deputy Police Commissioner Celvin Walwyn, who explained that Mattson and his wife had entered fraudulent COVID-19 test results into the USVI Travel Portal, according to the affidavit.
A Health Department epidemiologist then informed Harris that they had received documents Friday at around 8:48 p.m. for Mattson and the other traveler from “American Family Care,” which were flagged as possibly fraudulent “after health authorities noticed that the fonts of the date were different from the rest of the report.”
The Health Department made contact with American Family Care and “the lab stated that both Clifford Mattson” and the other traveler “were never tested at their lab,” according to the affidavit.
The Health Department informed Mattson that he would need to be tested and quarantine if he traveled into the territory using those test results, and Mattson submitted two additional tests from Walgreens at 10:51 a.m. Saturday, according to the affidavit.
The Health Department notified Mattson that “since he submitted a modified test prior, which caused him to be red flagged, this will result in their arrest once they enter the territory.”
Officials also noticed suspicious inconsistencies in the two Walgreens test results, and confirmed with Walgreens employees at 10:56 a.m. on Saturday that “based on the requisition number listed on the result, it was not listed on their file,” according to the affidavit.
Passing ‘fraudulent documents’
When Mattson and his wife arrived at Rohlsen Airport, Harris said he watched as they presented V.I. National Guard members with “fraudulent documents” showing they’d tested negative for COVID-19.
The couple were escorted into a private room and handcuffed, and brought to the police station for questioning, where they both declined to provide a statement, according to the affidavit.
“Shortly thereafter, Mr. Mattson stated that he wanted to give a statement,” and gave a video recorded interview, Harris wrote.
Mattson admitted “that he modified the test result from ‘American Family Care’ for both he and his wife using his personal computer,” and that “the results were from a prior test he used to travel to the British Virgin Islands and that he just changed the dates for both him and his wife,” according to the affidavit.
Mattson told investigators his wife was unaware that he’d submitted fraudulent test results, or that he’d used her email address to upload the file. He said the Walgreens results “were not altered,” according to the affidavit.
Mattson was arrested and submitted to a COVID-19 test, which is required to be processed and booked into jail.
He posted $5,500 cash to secure his release and appeared in court via videoconference Tuesday, where his defense attorney Manning questioned how government officials were able to discuss his medical records with lab employees.
Manning asked whether the government obtained a warrant or a HIPPA release “to receive that medical information from Walgreens?”
Harris said he did not know.
Manning also asked whether the travel portal accepts all documents submitted by users.
“For example, if my client sent a letter that he disagrees with the COVID restrictions in the Virgin Islands, you would receive that document as well, isn’t that true?” Manning said.
Wanson said he was unsure but pointed out that users must first acknowledge that they agree to use the portal to submit only true, accurate documents, and “failure to do so can result in criminal charges.”
Probable cause for arrest
Pryor argued that Mattson “expended a great deal of energy to alter and falsify these tests” on his computer, and he “completely disregarded the severity of this global pandemic and this crisis.”
Pryor said Mattson “admitted to using his computer to alter them, admitted to using his wife’s email to submit them, and submitted them directly to the Virgin Islands screening portal,” putting all Virgin Islanders at risk of possible COVID-19 infection.
Manning and St. Jean also argued that the travel portal server is physically located in Utah and Mattson was outside the Virgin Islands when he submitted documents to it, so the court does not have jurisdiction. Pryor said the V.I. Code includes a provision for such circumstances, which Mattson’s defense lawyers argued is unconstitutional.
Morris rejected that argument, and said that “this court is finding that once that information was submitted through the travel portal, it made it to the Virgin Islands.”
Manning said Mattson has been fully vaccinated, and they intend to prove that he did get tested at Walgreens prior to travel. St. Jean also argued that the government’s rejection of the initial results from American Family Care lab meant they are not “material” to the case.
Morris reminded the attorneys that Tuesday’s hearing was on the limited issue of probable cause, and the various other arguments could be made later in the proceedings.
Crackdown on fake COVID tests
Morris ordered that bail remain as set at $5,500 and said Mattson must remain on St. Croix while he awaits trial, and cannot travel without the court’s permission.
The arrest comes days after V.I. officials warned during a press briefing on March 29 that anyone who submits forged or falsified COVID-19 documents to the territory's travel screening portal will be prosecuted.
Bryan said Tuesday that community efforts to fight the virus are being undermined “by some people that are coming to the territory and are not committed to the health and the safety of themselves and our residents. We told you that we were going to start cracking down on people coming into the territory with fake COVID-19 tests."
But Bryan also warned that more arrests are coming, "so, if you’re traveling, do the right thing."