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When Pride St. Louis committee members elected Chad Saenz as their vice president last August, few knew he was a convicted felon. In fact, Saenz won the election less than a year after his release from prison.
This information came to light last month when EXP Magazine long critical of Pride St. Louis published an article detailing the gay activist's criminal past. The disclosure has since split the gay community, with some members lining up to support the organization's vice president and others calling for Saenz's resignation.
"I can say confidently that we would not have voted someone in who had prior convictions especially for stealing," says committee member and former Pride St. Louis president Deborah Miller, who submitted a statement of support to the cadre calling for Saenz’s removal.
"The four seats that control the entire organization and are financially and legally responsible are the president, vice president, treasurer and secretary," Miller adds. "So it sits uneasily with a lot of people. I think he should step down."
The conviction stems from 2000 when, as a Wal-Mart employee in Higginsville, Missouri, Saenz admitted to stealing more than $7,000 in money orders from the store. According to court documents, Saenz pleaded guilty to the charge of felony stealing. A Lafayette County judge meted out a four-year suspended prison sentence and placed Saenz on five years' probation.
Three years later, as an employee at an American Eagle Outfitters store at the Mid Rivers Mall in St. Peters, Saenz was charged with stealing more than $5,000.
Saenz did not respond to an interview request for this story. But court documents reveal that, in early 2004, Saenz confessed to police that "he took the store's [American Eagle] deposit" on Christmas Eve of 2003. A St. Charles County judge revoked Saenz's probation and sentenced him to four years at the Booneville Correctional Center. Saenz served six months of his sentence and is currently on parole.
So far, Pride St. Louis' board of directors has stood behind its vice president, declining to heed calls for the 29-year-old's resignation.
"This issue was brought to the committee where a vote was taken on whether or not to remove Mr. Saenz from his current position," writes Pride St. Louis spokeswoman Toni Duran in a terse e-mail. "The vote overwhelmingly failed and Chad remains an integral and valued member of Pride St. Louis."
Committee member Bert Coleman agrees. "We all discussed it. We felt that he'd paid his debt. This is something that happened in the past. He's not dealing with money, so it's like, if you pay your debt to society, shouldn't you be given another chance?"
But others see the situation in less-personal terms and argue that the reputation and social perception of the nonprofit organization is at stake.
"Yes, this is a personal thing in his life. And yes, he served his time. And yes, we can't judge him in those ways. But this is going to affect what other people think of us," says Shan Casey, one of three committee members who voted for Saenz's ouster.
"People look at Pride [St. Louis], whether it has controversy or not, and they think that this is a representation of the gay community," Casey continues. "If the organization is willing to have a felon on its board, I just have a hard time with that."
The controversy comes on the heels of a series of scandals within the organization best known for putting on St. Louis' annual PrideFest celebration. In 2003 Pride president Rolf Rathmann was convicted of statutory sodomy. He quickly resigned after the allegations surfaced but said that the boy told him he was of legal age. Rathmann is now serving a six-year sentence at the Farmington Correctional Center.
Also in 2003, Pride St. Louis treasurer Ray Toloumu was indicted on charges of stealing money from the group. The ongoing case has been sealed by a St. Louis County judge.
More recently, Pride president Wayne Burling abruptly left the organization, but not before getting into a shoving match with another board member at this past June's PrideFest. Though unrelated, the scuffle coincided with the organization awarding a $1,000 scholarship to Charles Stadtlander, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative gay group.
According to an article published in the gay biweekly The Vital Voice, both Pride St. Louis spokeswoman Toni Duran and president John Lovin knew of Saenz's criminal convictions before the vote in which Saenz defeated incumbent vice president Eric Cordsiemon.
Lovin did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
"One of the funny things is that during the election, someone asked Lovin whether he [Lovin] had any criminal convictions, or whether there was anything he knew of that would embarrass Pride," says Deborah Miller. "Now they're deciding to stick [with Saenz] because they don't see any other options. The thing that upsets me is that there was another option for that position. There were two people running for vice president, and had we known this, I don't think we'd have voted for Chad."
But longtime Pride St. Louis critic and EXP Magazine publisher Jeff Balk says the board should have been more aggressive in its candidate screening.