Judicial Watch announced that it has teamed up with residents of Prince William County, Virginia, and their Virginia law firm, McSweeney, Cynkar & Kachouroff, PLLC to file a lawsuit against members of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors regarding a violation of Virginia’s open meetings law. The lawsuit was filed in Prince William County Circuit Court (Gloss, et al. v. Wheeler, et al. (No. 20-7521)).
On Saturday night May 30, various protests and rioting occurred in Prince William County, resulting in numerous injuries to police officers and extensive property damage. Police officers reportedly used tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. The next day, a meeting of the police department’s Citizen Advisory Board was held. All five Democrat supervisors attended the meeting, but the board’s three Republican members were not notified of the meeting and did not attend. The individual who chairs the Citizen’s Advisory Board is the husband of one of the Democrat supervisors.
As explained in the lawsuit, the Democrat supervisors violated Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act/open meeting law by holding a meeting in secret, without notice any Republican supervisor nor advance notice to the public as required by law. Virginia law prohibits any gathering of two or more members of the same public body if public business is transacted or discussed. While no votes were cast during the meeting, the Democrat members posed questions and provided directives to the police leadership to curtail the use of crowd control measures in future disturbances. As set forth in the lawsuit, this constituted a discussion of public business in violation of Virginia Code section 2.2.-3707(A).
“Now, more than ever, citizens need transparency in their government. Secret meetings on police policy undermines public confidence and violates the law,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton.
Governor Northam casts vote in November General Election on first day of early voting in Virginia
Governor Ralph Northam voted early Friday morning, September 18th, in person at the Richmond general registrar’s office on the first day of Virginia’s 45-day early voting period.
New laws allow all Virginians to vote absentee by mail, or in person at their local registrar’s office or satellite locations. The Governor signed legislation this year removing a previous provision that required absentee voters to provide a reason for voting early, so any Virginia voter may vote early without providing a specific reason.
“Virginians can be confident their vote is secure and will be counted,” said Governor Northam. “While the pandemic has made this an unprecedented election year, Virginia voters have several safe and easy ways to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Voting is an essential part of our democracy, and I encourage every Virginia voter to know their options and make a plan for safely casting their ballot.”
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a higher number of Virginians are expected to vote by mail in the 2020 election. As of Thursday, the Department of Elections had received 824,000 requests for absentee ballots by mail. For comparison, 566,000 votes were cast absentee in the 2016 General Election—half by mail.
Virginians have several options for safely casting their ballots for the November General Election.
Absentee by Mail
Beginning today, September 18, Virginia general registrars will mail absentee ballots to voters who request them. Virginians can request a ballot online at elections.virginia.gov. The last day to request an absentee ballot by mail is Friday, October 23 at 5:00 p.m.
All absentee ballots will include a return envelope with prepaid postage. Ballots with a postmark of November 3 or earlier will be accepted until noon on Friday, November 6.
As an additional layer of security, every absentee ballot envelope is required to have an intelligent mail barcode and an election mail insignia. The insignia tells the United States Postal Service that this piece of mail is a ballot and should be prioritized. The barcode lets voters track their ballot once it leaves the registrar’s office—so a voter will know when their ballot has been mailed to them, and when it is delivered back to the registrar. Voters can track their absentee ballot using the absentee ballot lookup tool available here.
Absentee ballots may also be hand-delivered to your local registrar’s office or returned to a secure drop-off location, which includes any satellite voting location. A list of drop-off locations is available on your county or city’s official website. On Election Day, you can also drop off your completed absentee ballot at any polling place in the county or city in which you are registered to vote.
For voters who prefer to vote in person, there are two options.
Early In Person
Starting today, September 18, Virginia voters can vote absentee in person at their local registrar’s office as Governor Northam did. Voters can simply go to their local general registrar’s office or a satellite voting location identified by the registrar’s office and cast their vote. Voters may use this option through Saturday, October 31—one of the longest early voting periods of any state.
The other option is the traditional one: voting in person on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3, at your polling place. Polls will be open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Virginia has allocated federal CARES Act funding to ensure that all election officers have personal protective equipment, and Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed.
Virginia considers election security to be a top priority and has made significant progress in recent years to ensure a secure election process that places election integrity and voter confidence at the forefront. Additional information about election security in Virginia can be found here.
To register to vote or learn more about absentee voting in Virginia, visit elections.virginia.gov/absentee. Answers to frequently asked questions can be found here.
Follow the Department of Elections on Twitter at @vaElect, on Facebook at @VirginiaELECT, and on Instagram at @va_election.
See below for photos of Governor Northam casting his ballot at the Richmond general registrar’s office today.
The new on-campus college experience: self-isolation and distraction
Social isolation due to the coronavirus has become a stressor for many college students across Virginia, who report that studying is more difficult and their mental health is suffering.
Shane Emory, a senior broadcast journalism major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, says he is experiencing this firsthand. While the dorms are quieter overall, there is very little opportunity to escape distractions. Emory says that his guitar and television are the top two things that draw him away from work.
Since the pandemic swept the nation, altered routines have become the new normal. Students who usually study in the library say that is no longer an option to consider lightly. Many students say the best option is to stay put and endure distractions and loneliness rather than risk contracting the virus or unknowingly endangering someone else.
Camryn Nesmith, a junior nursing major at Liberty University in Lynchburg, says that increased social isolation has taken a toll on her concentration and mental well-being. She also says that it is difficult to escape from loud noises and distractions in her dorm.
“There has been an effect on my school work because I don’t do well-doing schoolwork in my dorm. I need to be in the library or somewhere like that,” she says. “I try to get my work done early in the morning when it’s quiet.”
Nesmith feels that Liberty prioritizes the safety of its students and that there are always people enforcing the rules and making sure everyone wears a mask. The university is currently reporting 184 total cases since Sept. 2. Almost 490 on-campus students are currently quarantined, along with 492 commuters and 139 employees.
Marian Woodington, a sophomore vocal music education major at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, says via email that she initially attended in-person classes, albeit reluctantly. Cases quickly spiked at the Harrisonburg-based university, hitting over 500 the first-week classes resumed.
“I did feel reluctant because, since there were not harsh regulations, anyone could have sat in the seat that I chose, and they could be sick,” she says. “The rooms were only cleaned at certain times throughout the day and you never know what someone else has touched when walking into a building.”
JMU classes were moved online about a week after starting consultation with the Virginia Department of Health. As of Friday, the university has reported almost 1,400 total coronavirus cases since Aug. 17.
The pandemic has caused a significant mental health impact on students. More students are using VCU support services, according to Jihad Aziz, the interim executive director of VCU University Counseling Services. Students who have sought counseling this semester raise many concerns such as worry over family members and the fear of contracting the coronavirus, Aziz said in an email.
The office has implemented some new methods in response, such as offering support groups for students that meet weekly over Zoom.
“We know that students are seeking connection and it’s important that they know that they are not alone during these difficult times,” Aziz says. “We have support groups specifically for students of color, those with chronic health issues, health professional students, and a few others.”
VCU initially experienced a spike in cases when a cluster of 44 positive cases connected to VCU Athletics was reported in the second week of classes. The university has reported a total of 251 cases since Aug. 17.
COVID-19 and the accompanying economic recession have negatively affected the mental health of many people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. A Kaiser poll taken in mid-July reported that 53% of U.S. adults say their anxiety levels have increased significantly due to stress associated with COVID-19. Adults also reported difficulties sleeping and eating due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.
Rickaya Sykes, a junior theatre performance major at VCU, has a different perspective on how staying inside has affected her mental health. She considers herself an extrovert but says that prolonged periods indoors have improved her concentration and time management.
“I’m able to relax knowing that I don’t want to go out because of the virus,” she says. “I can stay in and cook, I can watch movies, and I don’t feel pressured to be on the go all the time. I find it soothing to not have plans to go anywhere.”
According to the CDC, taking time to relax and unwind can be a good way to cope with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like Sykes, Emory also is taking time to relax. When the call of his guitar becomes too loud to ignore, he puts down the books and picks it up.
By Hunter Britt
Capital News Service
The Virginia Department of Elections launches absentee voting campaign
RICHMOND, VA – The Virginia Department of Elections wants Virginia voters to know that they are free to be absentee! The Department today announced “Free to Be Absentee”, their new awareness campaign designed to educate voters about absentee and early voting to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
The campaign features a series of contemporary and entertaining digital ads and social media content that highlight a creative focus on the absentee and early voting processes. This information will be made available on the Department’s website here, and shared with media outlets across the Commonwealth.
“We are excited about our new campaign and committed to ensuring that all eligible Virginia voters are able to make their voices heard,” said Christopher Piper, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections. “We want voters to know about all of the options they have to cast their ballots for the upcoming election.”
While absentee voting is not new to Virginians, after new legislation passed by the VA General Assembly that went into effect July 1, 2020, Virginia voters no longer need an excuse to vote absentee. Any registered voter may request an absentee ballot or go vote early in person. Absentee ballots will begin being mailed out on September 18th, the same day early voting begins in all localities throughout the Commonwealth.
Voters with questions about absentee, mail-in and in-person voting or any aspect of the November 3, 2020 election may call the Virginia Department of Elections at (800) 552-9745, email the department at email@example.com, or visit our website at elections.virginia.gov/absentee. Voters are also encouraged to follow us on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram social media platforms.
U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen announces departure
U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen announced today that he is resigning from the Department of Justice, effective Tuesday, September 15, at 12:00 p.m. Cullen, 43, who has served as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia since March 30, 2018, made this announcement following his Senate confirmation to become a U.S. District Judge in the Western District of Virginia.
“U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen has served the Department of Justice and the citizens of the Western District of Virginia with honor and distinction,” U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr said today. “During his tenure, the office made meaningful strides towards reducing violent crime, mitigating the opioid epidemic, and increasing cooperation among federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies. As he moves into his new role as a federal district judge, I am confident that he will remain steadfast in his commitment to equal justice and the rule of law.”
“Serving as U.S. Attorney has been the highlight of my career,” Cullen stated today. “I am enormously proud of the dedicated public servants in this office and the work that they—along with our many brave law-enforcement partners—do to protect the public.”
Under Cullen’s leadership, the U.S. Attorney’s Office focused on implementing the Attorney General’s priorities of combatting violent crime and the opioid epidemic. He also personally directed the federal civil rights prosecutions stemming from the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
As part of the national Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) program, Cullen and the prosecutors in his office have worked closely with federal, state, and local law enforcement in the Roanoke Valley, the Danville-Pittsylvania County region, and the greater Lynchburg area to identify individuals and groups responsible for committing violent, firearms, gang-related, and serious drug offenses and prosecute them in federal court. These coordinated efforts led to a significant increase in the number of defendants prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, from 267 in fiscal year 2018, to 410 in 2019 (a 54 percent increase overall), and contributed to a substantial decrease in the rate of violent crime in Danville over a similar time period.
U.S. Attorney Cullen also directed a multifaceted federal response to the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the region over the past several years. His prosecutors have obtained convictions of over a dozen physicians and other health-care providers for the unlawful distribution of controlled substances and related criminal conduct. The office also has secured convictions and civil settlements against numerous corporate entities engaged in the unlawful distribution of controlled substances. In recognition of this hard work and the office’s long track record of success in prosecuting corrupt medical providers, Attorney General William P. Barr, in April 2019, announced that he would expand DOJ’s Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force (ARPO) to the Western District of Virginia. The ARPO Strike Force is composed of prosecutors and data analysts from DOJ’s Health Care Fraud Unit who deploy to participating districts to support the prosecution of individuals and organizations engaged in the unlawful distribution of opioids. With these additional investigative resources, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has been able to increase the number of prosecutions in this critical area.
In addition to its enforcement efforts, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, under Cullen’s leadership, has productively collaborated with local community groups and treatment advocates on effective opioid prevention and recovery initiatives. In late 2018, U.S. Attorney Cullen convened a meeting with leaders from Carilion Clinic in Roanoke and public-health officials from Buffalo, NY, to discuss “Buffalo Matters,” a community-based program designed to aid patients with the opioid-use disorder through rapid referrals from emergency rooms to community-based clinics upon discharge. As a result of this meeting and Carilion’s commitment to implementing the Buffalo Matters model, Roanoke Memorial Hospital has made significant progress in directing opioid-use disorder patients to treatment programs and, in turn, significantly reducing the number of ER visits. The office also recently announced the formation of a Heroin Education Action Team (HEAT), a partnership between the U.S. Attorney’s office and families who have lost love ones to opioid overdose. Once in-person classroom instruction resumes, the HEAT team will deploy to school districts around the region and speak to students and their families about the dangers and tragedies associated with opioid use. Cullen was also proud to partner with Chief U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski and the federal public defender to launch a federal drug-treatment court, one of only a handful of federal drug courts nationwide.
Cullen also devoted a significant amount of his time to the “Unite the Right” prosecutions. In July 2019, his prosecution team obtained a life sentence for James Fields Jr., who perpetrated an act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville that killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and seriously injured over 30 peaceful protestors. They also successfully prosecuted several members of the militant white-supremacist group the Rise Above Movement (RAM), who traveled from California and committed numerous acts of violence. He and his team also convicted an avowed white supremacist on civil rights and cyberstalking charges for threatening a prospective candidate for the Charlottesville City Council and the minor autistic daughter of a community activist. Cullen, who served on DOJ’s Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee while U.S. Attorney, was particularly outspoken about the alarming rise of violence by white supremacists in the United States.
In addition to these successful prosecutions, the office’s civil division has significantly increased its efforts in the areas of civil fraud enforcement and federal debt collection. In April 2020, the division announced a landmark $5 million settlement with a group of 24 coal companies owned and operated by the family of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice for unpaid violations of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. The division’s newly reconstituted affirmative civil enforcement (ACE) group has also successfully assessed monetary penalties against medical professionals, hospitals, and pharmacies for violations of the Controlled Substances Act and health-care fraud.
As U.S. Attorney, Cullen widely traveled the district to meet with his federal, state, and local law-enforcement counterparts. He visited over 50 local commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices during his tenure and met with scores of local sheriffs, police chiefs, and other community officials. Several of his key law-enforcement partners reacted to today’s announcement:
“Over the last several years, Thomas Cullen and the office he runs have provided the type of law enforcement leadership that has made Americans in general, and Virginians in particular, safer,” said David W. Archey, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Richmond Division. “Mr. Cullen is a true partner to the FBI and a professional. He is aggressive though not a zealot, he seeks just outcomes, and he executes his authority with humility. Each of these qualities will continue to serve our country and our Commonwealth well from the Bench.”
“I congratulate U.S. Attorney Cullen on his appointment to the Federal bench and thank him for his steadfast support to both myself and the ATF Washington Field Division,” said Ashan M. Benedict, Special Agent in Charge of ATF’s Washington Field Division. “Working together, we successfully coordinated the investigation and prosecution of an ever-increasing number of criminal cases within the Western District of Virginia – a testament to our mutual commitment to public safety and the rule of law. I wish Thomas all the best as he continues his distinguished career in public service.”
“In 2016 and 2017, the City of Danville, Virginia, was experiencing an extreme surge in violent crime, specifically gang-related violent crime. Homicides and shootings were becoming a regular occurrence, and our community was suffering. In 2018, working with the Office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, under the leadership of Thomas Cullen, we were able to effectively prosecute several high-ranking gang members for these violent crimes, as a result, our community is now a much safer place,” said Danville Police Chief Scott C. Booth. “In 2019, our community experienced a 31 percent reduction in homicides, a 42 percent reduction in aggravated assaults, and a 63 percent reduction in robberies. Danville is a much safer place now because of Thomas Cullen and his leadership. Danville Police Department’s efforts including the implementation of Project Safe Neighborhoods have resulted in drops in every violent crime category from 2018 to 2019.”
“I would like to offer my congratulations to Mr. Cullen on his confirmation as a federal judge. During his time as U.S. Attorney, Mr. Cullen has worked closely with local law enforcement to ensure that those people who victimize our citizens are brought to justice,” said Roanoke County Police Chief Howard B. Hall. “His contributions to our regional efforts have led to the successful conclusion of numerous significant investigations. He has been a great partner. While we will miss him locally, I am confident that he will make great contributions to our criminal justice system as a judge.”
“My staff and I have had the opportunity to work with Mr. Cullen in his capacity as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia. Our region, like many other communities in the country, has been plagued by heroin trafficking and the devastation that it has on families,” said Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter. “As the U.S. Attorney, Mr. Cullen has been extremely sensitive to this devastation, and has worked hard to bring federal resources to bear, making a local impact in both enforcement for traffickers, and treatment for those addicted. Mr. Cullen is straight-forward, honest, and practical. He has a temperament and organizational skills to be a solid member of the federal judiciary. He makes sound and lawful decisions.”
“It has been a true pleasure working with U. S. Attorney Thomas Cullen these past 2 years. He was highly responsive and open to discuss partnerships that furthered community safety in Lynchburg,” said Bethany Harrison, Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Lynchburg. “It is no surprise to me that he was confirmed for a Federal Judgeship. We will miss him terribly and wish him the best in his new endeavor.”
Attorney General Barr will announce Cullen’s replacement in the coming days.
Florida man pleads guilty to cyberstalking Charlottesville-area woman
Agustin Alberto Lainez, a Florida man who harassed a Charlottesville-area woman and threatened to physically harm her and expose publicly her personal information, pleaded guilty yesterday in U.S. District Court here to federal cyberstalking. United States Attorney Thomas T. Cullen and David W. Archey, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Richmond Division made the announcement today, September 10, 2020.
“This defendant used a keyboard to harass the victim in this case with remarkable cruelty, to the point of causing her panic attacks—all while trying to hide in the shadows of the internet,” First Assistant United States Attorney Daniel P. Bubar said today. “This abhorrent conduct of extortion and blackmail is just as wrong in cyberspace and will be punished accordingly. I am proud of the work of the FBI for bringing this defendant to justice and allowing the victim at least some semblance of peace.”
Lainez, 22, of Sanford, Fla., pleaded guilty yesterday to one count of cyberstalking. At sentencing, Lainez faces a maximum possible penalty of up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $250,000, as well as a period of supervised release.
According to court documents, in approximately September 2019, Lainez became friends with the Victim online, and the two started talking through Twitter Direct Messages (DMs). In January 2020, Lainez requested a nude photograph of the Victim. The Victim initially declined but later relented.
Over the next several weeks, Lainez asked if the Victim would have a sexual relationship with him and informed the Victim that he would only be able to “move on” and be friends with the Victim if they had sexual intercourse. When the Victim declined his advances, Lainez demanded a nude video, threatening to expose the Victim’s personal information if she did not send nude videos as he had demanded.
The Victim still declined.
When threats of exposure failed to work, Lainez threatened physical harm. On February 21, 2020, Lainez sent a Twitter DM to the Victim showing a screenshot in which Lainez is directing other Twitter users to “please beat [her] ass…” In another Twitter DM, Lainez threatened to rape the Victim.
In another screenshot, Lainez sent the Victim what appears to be a “Notes” page that included the Victim’s name, high school, city of residence, university, telephone number, and other sensitive information. Lainez added a message, “On my draft ready go go [sic] and I’m adding more.” Fearful that Lainez would follow through with his threats, the Victim gave in to Lainez’s demand for a nude video of herself. However, this did not stop Lainez’s abusive behavior, which continued on an almost daily basis for weeks.
In his Twitter DMs, Lainez repeatedly admitted that he was extorting the Victim. For example, in one DM, Lainez stated that he was going to “keep Blackmailing you and adding things for you to do whenever you lie or I think you’re lying to me.” In another DM, Lainez wrote, “Lowkey hate this and like it at the same time, I just wish I didn’t have to literally blackmail you for you to tell me the truth and not be a whore lol.”
As a result of his actions, the Victim lived in constant fear, was subject to emotional distress, and suffered panic attacks.
The investigation of the case was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Assistant United States Attorney Heather L. Carlton is prosecuting the case for the United States.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington distributes backpacks to more than 250 local refugee children for back-to-school
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington’s Migration and Refugee Program (MRS) is hosting its annual “Backpack Giveaway” this year as a drive-thru to ensure safe social distancing for families, volunteers and staff. More than 250 students are registered to receive backpacks filled with basic supplies, including pencils, pens, erasers, glue, scissors, crayons, colored pencils, markers, notebooks, composition books, 3-ring binders, loose leaf paper and highlighters. Additionally, in response to COVID-19, masks, sanitizers and gloves are being distributed to each family.
“We are thrilled to offer our annual backpack distribution as a drive-thru this year to ensure families can participate in a safe way. While this is definitely an unusual year as students prepare to enter school in a variety of ways, be it in person, virtually or a combination of the two, the need for basic supplies has increased,” said Belayneh Loppisso, Program Director, MRS, an asylee himself and former client of MRS. “The economic impact the coronavirus has had on the refugee committee, particularly those already experiencing hardship, has been significant, magnifying the need for and impact of this effort.”
MRS BACKPACK GIVEAWAY
- Who: Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington Migration and Refugee Services and Backpack Recipient Families. (Families must be pre-registered to receive a backpack.)
- When: Friday, September 11, 2020 | 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
- Where: Migration and Refugee Services Office of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington | 80 N. Glebe Rd. | Arlington, VA 22203
The Arlington event is one of three backpack drive-thru distributions at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year, which include distributions in Fredericksburg and Manassas. Additionally, for families unable to make it to a drive-thru, volunteers are providing no-contact delivery to individual residences.
All items were donated by parishioners and school families from throughout the Diocese, including St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax, Church of the Nativity in Burke and St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, as well as Girl Scouts, the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Rock Spring Congregational Church. To receive a backpack distributed during the MRS event, students must be clients of MRS and enrolled in the Virginia Refugee Student Achievement Program for students ages 5-18 who have been in the United States for less than five years.
MRS serves new clients arriving to the U.S. throughout the year, so school supplies are always needed. To donate a backpack or supplies or for additional information, contact Rebecca Boak, Community Engagement Specialist at MRS, at Rebecca.Boak@ccda.net.