During his tenure as Front Royal-Warren County Interim Executive Director, John Anzivino observed during one monthly report that he found the way EDA records had been kept as not “standard budget practice”.
On February 22, Anzivino told the EDA Board of Directors that he had “reconstructed your budget to a simpler format, a more understandable format but with more detail” pointing to “a past tendency to mix operational and capital expenditures in the EDA budget” adding that he had separated the EDA’s operational, capital and debt services budget from their previous mixed format.
A clue as to the convoluted nature of the EDA books may be offered in newly-revealed information contained in the “work papers” (aka “forensic audit”, aka “intrinsic fact finding”, aka “historical study of EDA finances”) of contracted investigative public accounting firm Cherry Bekaert.
“McDonald is suspected of (possibly in collusion with other parties) embezzling approximately $457,000 in monies obtained from bank credit facilities designated for Town and County-sponsored capital improvement and development projects, to conduct undisclosed and unauthorized non-arm’s length (conflict of interest) transaction payments for maintenance type services to individuals believed to be relatives of McDonald,” Allegation 12 – Payments to Relatives begins.
It is important to remember that so far none of the people cited in this section of the Cherry Bekaert working papers filed in the EDA civil case have been charged criminally, nor were they initially named in the EDA civil litigation as liable parties. It is certainly possible they believed they were being paid for approved work, as McDonald attorneys are sure to argue their client also believed.
However, the investigative accounting consultant notes that the prevalence of contracted work with relatives is an indicator of a conflict of interest. It also asserts that the contracted work with relatives was “unknown and unauthorized” by the EDA Board of Directors and that payments were made with funds “designated for Town and County-sponsored capital improvement and development projects”.
The list of eight what it terms “questionable payments”, seven listed as “Maintenance & other” totaling $457,313 includes:
1/ $167,287 paid from 2001-2018 to George Hassenplug (husband of McDonald’s mother Linda Hassenplug, Jennifer McDonald’s stepfather);
2/ $32,175 paid from July 2018 to October 2018 to Myron Smelser (believed to be George Hassenplug’s employer);
3/ $158,267 paid from 2011-2018 to Chris Hassenplug (believed to be McDonald’s half-brother);
4/ $5,675 paid from 2000-2006 to Gail Addison (believed to be McDonald’s sister);
5/ $18,791 paid from 2001-2015 to John Addison (Gail Addison’s husband, believed to be McDonald’s brother-in-law);
6/ $3,938 from 2001-2015 to Micheal Addison, who the filing states is believed to be McDonald’s nephew;
7/ $66,205 from 2001-2015 to Sammy North (McDonald’s husband); and
8/ the one non-maintenance item listed as “B&G Goods Escrow Account & other”, $4,975 from 2010-2016 to Kathy Butler (formerly Kathy McDonald, who while the filing states is believed to be related to McDonald in an unspecified manner, is believed to be another sister who was in a relationship with one of the two B&G Goods principals).
Specifics of exactly what work was paid for and at what rate is absent in the 4-page summary of “Allegation 12” and there is no comment on whether it is believed the contracted work was performed or not.
So if it is determined the work was performed at a reasonable rate of exchange, McDonald’s attorneys are sure to argue that said “maintenance” work was, in fact, a “capital improvement” of sorts accomplished on land the Town and/or County had an interest in as EDA assets; and that the EDA board’s lack of knowledge of the contracts was simply an indicator of the hands-off attitude the board exhibited toward day-to-day EDA business due to its oft-expressed trust in McDonald as the manager of its affairs.
On the other hand, Cherry Bekaert comments on accounting practices it believes were inefficient at best, or possibly indicative of concealment of the arrangements with relatives or relatives’ business interests.
“We determined there were two methods the EDA used to record check payments to vendors. The common method is through the vendor master file which provides an audit trail of vendor payment histories and direct general ledger coding to record the transactions to respective EDA accounts,” the working papers state of Allegation 12, adding, “The other method is to use the QuickBooks “Other” category which is a selected option in QuickBooks normally to facilitate recording of wire payments., ACH payments, and online banking payment transactions.”
Cherry Bekaert notes that while this method allows “the EDA to issue a manual check” it “does not provide a payment history or audit trail” which the company observes requires that care must be taken “to provide sufficient detail in the description of the transaction and to provide a clear history and audit trail leading to the underlying support of the business purpose of the payment.”
In further support of its allegation of at least a conflict of interest impropriety in these transactions, Cherry Bekaert points to payments to Smalls Plumbing and North Plumbing in the EDA QuickBooks “Other” category, with both companies listing a business address that is also Jennifer McDonald’s home address.
“An undetermined amount of payments may have been made to North Plumbing and other related parties using this method,” Cherry Bekaert writes of how the EDA bookkeeping was done related to its suspicions about these largely maintenance contractual payments.
Much ado about nothing or a link in a chain of widespread financial impropriety the EDA now asserts its former executive director was involved in over a multi-year period?
Stay tuned, that’s what the EDA civil trial – likely at another 26th Judicial District court venue – will eventually set out to determine.
EDA announces 1-year lease with SYSCO on Baugh Drive warehouse
In a special meeting, the Warren County/Front Royal Economic Development Authority on April 30, 2021, has leased the 426 Baugh property to Sysco until May 2022. The monthly lease is $28,800 per month.
Earlier the EDA had made arrangements to sell the former Atlantic Skyline Building at 426 Baugh Drive for the full asking price of $5,750,000 to Parallel Virginia, LLC, a pharmaceutical processor of medical cannabis. The sale was contingent upon the conditional approval of the company’s application for a pharmaceutical processor permit in Health Service Area 1 by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy – that decision that was expected in March 2021 apparently had been postponed.
EDA ups ante in civil litigation versus McDonald – without defense objection
Could the Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) and its former executive director, Jennifer McDonald, be headed toward a settlement of the EDA’s multi-million dollar civil litigation against her and her two real estate LLCs, MoveOn8 and DaBoyz? That would appear to be a possibility in the wake of a “Stipulations” agreement hearing Friday morning, April 9, in Warren County Circuit Courtroom A.
After the adjournment of the 9 a.m. docket hearing to deal with remote phone connection issues for other defendants’ attorneys not present for the two-pronged April 9 hearing, Judge Bruce D. Albertson reentered the courtroom at 9:25 a.m. with the remote connection issues resolved. EDA lead civil attorney Cullen Seltzer of the Richmond law firm of Sands Anderson then read the five-point “Stipulations” submission to the court as McDonald and her attorney Peter Greenspun listened at the defense table.
The first of those stipulations set an amount of $62,315,315.51 as the EDA’s claimed damages in the civil case against McDonald and her two real estate companies alleged to have been used to move EDA assets to her or co-defendants’ personal benefit. It is worth noting that the original EDA civil litigation filing was in the $21-million range, later being amended with added defendants to near $28 million.
The second and third stipulations note that the McDonald-LLC defendants “take no position on the basis for” that plaintiff-claimed amount; nor do they admit to “any wrongdoing” regarding the EDA’s claim of damages.
It is the wording of the final two stipulations approved by the court that may hint at negotiation between the plaintiff and defendant:
“The Defaulted Defendants (McDonald, MoveOn8, and DaBoyz) have endorsed an order providing money damages judgment in the amount of $62,315,315.51 in favor of the plaintiff (the ‘Money Judgment Order’),” Stipulation 4 reads, followed by this:
“No sooner than 60 days from April 9, 2021, Plaintiff’s counsel may tender to the Court the Money Judgment Order if the Defaulted Defendants and the Plaintiff do not sooner enter into an agreement satisfactory to the parties. The Defaulted Defendants do not oppose the Court’s entry of the Money Judgment Order once tendered pursuant to this paragraph.”
Defense attorney Greenspun and his client left the courtroom after the five minutes it took for the “Stipulations” submission to be read to the court by EDA counsel and for Judge Albertson to accept them, as indicated above, without objection from the defendant or her counsel, as the second part of the morning’s hearing began. That hearing was on a “Protective Order” request by defendant April Petty’s attorney Bill Shmidheiser to prevent volumes of his client’s bank records not relevant to the EDA case against Petty being posted on a secured database accessible by all the associated defendants, 15 in the first amended complaint and nine more added later.
Shmidheiser cited 3 pages related to a $41,000 check deposit regarding one real estate transaction as relevant to the case out of an estimated one thousand pages of Petty’s bank records from at least six accounts reviewed by the plaintiff attorneys and posted to the database.
EDA co-counsel Sean Hutson argued that the defendant should not be the one to determine the relevance of her own documents, that other defendants’ counsel should. After he polled four defense attorneys connected to the hearing remotely and getting four “no objections” to Petty’s counsel’s request, Judge Albertson granted Petty’s requested exclusion of apparently unrelated bank records from the case database.
Following adjournment after that 20-minute hearing, we asked EDA lead counsel Seltzer about the implications of the Money Judgment Order “Stipulations” agreement approved by the court earlier. However, he declined to discuss details of the status of an active case on the record.
So, we soon tried EDA Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne with whom we’d briefly discussed the morning’s hearing following adjournment of an 8 a.m. Emergency Meeting of the EDA Board earlier that morning. No action followed a 50-minute closed session. During the brief open session, Browne explained the “emergency” designation simply meant the meeting had been called within 24 hours of its convening.
While also reluctant to discuss the still-active EDA civil litigation, Browne did observe that the entering of a signed agreement by the involved parties citing a 60-day window to reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion was a positive sign that discussion would take place. Of the potential of such discussion, Browne observed, “If we can avoid trial and save tons of money by coming to an agreement it would be a positive development. I hope it works out.”
County updating equipment, rewriting IT software in wake of system ‘intrusion’
During his update on County business at the virtual meeting of the Warren County-Front Royal Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Friday morning, March 26, Interim County Administrator Ed Daley addressed the status of the County’s software situation in the wake of the early March discovery of what has been termed an “intrusion” of that system. Daley has fallen short of calling the incident a “hack” due to an absence of discovered consequences such as stolen files or manipulation of existing files or systems.
However, the consequences which began with a nearly three-week halt in use of all county officials and staff emails due to the County server being taken down as a security precautionary measure, continues to be felt. As previously reported, the local IT system intrusion was part of a larger “intrusion” of software at various unspecified locations across the country. It’s source and purpose continues to be a matter of investigation from the federal level down.
A day prior to Daley’s report at the EDA’s monthly meeting, Warren County Emergency Services Coordinator Rick Farrall’s March 25 County “Situation Report” also began with an update on the post software “intrusion” consequences:
- Warren County Email Update
- Warren County, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, and the Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue Services are still experiencing significant computer/email issues. The County is working diligently to restore full computer and email service to all personnel.
- Please note that any emails sent to County personnel at warrencountva.net, warrencountysheriff.org, or warrencountyfire.com may not be received until all email services are fully restored.
A clue to that restored service came Friday during the interim county administrator’s report to the EDA. Daley told the EDA board that 150 new laptop computers were slated to arrive Tuesday (March 30). Contacted late Friday afternoon, Daley told Royal Examiner by phone that it was anticipated all County emails would be back online at the beginning of the coming week, possibly coinciding with the arrival of the new computers and a rewrite of the County IT network. The system overhaul is to assure whoever was behind the intrusion no longer has access to the system, Daley explained. In a late update Monday morning, Daley said it now appeared the computers would not arrive until Thursday, delaying the restored email use until later in the week.
“We’re just busy buying computers and throwing computers out and wondering why we still have 2007 computers… – It’s a new experience every day,” Daley began his report to the EDA board Friday morning.
“Well, we wish the County well – it’s a horrible problem,” EDA Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne told his former fellow EDA Board member and chairman. EDA officials later told Royal Examiner the separate EDA server had not been impacted by the County intrusion, though a downed 10-year-old router had temporarily taken the EDA system offline for about a day this past week.
As noted in our original story on the hack – “A new municipal ‘normal’ – large scale software ‘intrusions’ and targeting an international human organ harvesting business?!?” – Daley said that while the beginning date of the intrusion hadn’t been established, it was verified it did not involve or impact election data from last November.
Daley told us that discussion of acquiring upgraded technology for the County was already underway when the intrusion was discovered March 7 to 12. In fact, the old County Information Technology was only capable of support of Windows 7, which will soon be non-serviceable as Window 10 and beyond continue development.
“So this gave us a reason to upgrade now,” Daley told Royal Examiner of the County IT software intrusion. One sign of the upgrade will be an eventual switch from .net to .gov in the County network, including staff and other official emails.
EDA authorizes escrow fund use to help cover FY-21 debt service
Following a multi-faceted hour-and-a-half closed session Friday morning the 26th at its regular board meeting of March, the Warren County-Front Royal Economic Development Authority Board of Directors authorized use of a portion of the $158,598.31 balance of an escrow account related to the Leach Run Parkway loan to make regularly scheduled loan payments for the Avtex loan and the Leach Run Parkway loan for April, May and June 2021. It was pointed out this will provide some relief to the County’s financial burden in covering the EDA’s debts for the remainder of Fiscal Year-2021 in the wake of the EDA financial scandal predating the current board and staff.
EDA attorney Sharon Pandak prefaced the motion by reviewing circumstances surrounding the Leach Run Parkway Loan escrow account, which also predates the current board and executive director’s tenure, and its recent reimbursement in part by United Bank following the bank’s finally closing with the Town of Front Royal on the assumption of responsibility for a loan to pay off the balance of the $8,440,797 FRPD headquarters construction project.|
Contacted later, EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons explained the original balance of the Leach Run Parkway Loan escrow account was $250,000 that had never been accessed. However, United Bank elected to draw on that Leach Run Parkway Loan escrow account for the interest and principal payments on the FRPD construction loan during the four months – November 2020 to February 2021 – it was awaiting finalization of the Town’s FRPD loan. The delay, as explained by both Town and EDA officials, was due to the discovery of a needed partial release of the deed of trust of the former Avtex Superfund site, for the 5.24-acre parcel upon which the FRPD headquarters is situated at 900 Monroe Avenue, had never been realized.
The Warren County Board of Supervisors chose to stop covering the EDA’s original FRPD loan payments that the Front Royal Town Council refused to accept moral responsibility for in the wake of the EDA financial scandal during the tenure of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald, after the October 2020 payment. That was when the EDA FRPD loan payments went from 3% interest-only in the $21,000 monthly range to over $50,000 in principal and interest monthly payments.
Parsons cited the United Bank Leach Run Parkway Loan reimbursed escrow account amount based on fluctuating monthly principal payments at $116,246.84, as noted above bringing the escrow account balance to $158,598.31. With a virtual ZOOM meeting torrent of numbers dancing through our heads, we asked Parsons for a rundown of exactly what was approved regarding the use of the escrow funds.
“In an effort to help the County service our debt, the Board of Directors voted this morning to apply $53,953.29 toward the loan payments of the Leach Run Parkway loan and the Avtex loan for the remaining three months of FY-21 – April, May, June 2021,” he began, breaking that number down further: Avtex loan monthly payments of $14,021.80 and Leach Run monthly of $3,962.63 totals $17,984.43 x 3 = $53,953.29.
With the FRPD loan future principal and interest payments finally assumed by the Town, as had always been anticipated by the EDA upon completion of the project it financed for the Town, the lone remaining sticking point on the FRPD financing situation between the Town and EDA appears to be reimbursement of the approximately $640,000 of construction loan interest previously covered by the EDA and the County. And it is likely that number was part of a closed session discussion of the EDA’s countersuit against the Town, the second of three closed session topics adjourned from open session to at 8:06 a.m. Friday.
Supervisors try to absorb County budget numbers: past, present and future
Early Tuesday evening, March 9, the Warren County Board of Supervisors, particularly its three newest, first-term, second-year trio of Chair Cheryl Cullers, Delores Oates and Walt Mabe, tried to get a handle on the County’s finances. First up on the work session agenda starting at 6 p.m. in the main meeting room of the Warren County Government Center was an Audit Report from Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates’ Michael Lupton. That was followed by Deputy County Administrator Taryn Logan’s report on the status of a two-decade-old joint County-Town Wayfinding Sign project aimed at directing tourists toward the county’s myriad natural and historical attractions on both sides of the town-county line. And batting cleanup were Interim County Administrator Ed Daley and new Finance Director Keith McLiverty for an update on the Fiscal Year 2022 County Budget process.
Audit company representative Lupton gave an overall positive report, with some gaps in financial reporting. Lupton cited those gaps as a likely result of a high turnover among upper-level staff, most prominently at the head of the County Finance Department. Stabilization in that area with the arrival of County Finance Director McLiverty, who with Interim County Administrator Daley, helped guide the board through some of their logistical questions on the audit report summary, was cited as a positive turn for the future. Also acknowledged was interim help from former Finance Director Andre Fletcher, as well as Carolyn Stimmel, the latter mostly on the EDA side of the equation.
Some board questions revolved around what Lupton called “finicky numbers” related to asset versus debt ratios that are impacted by market fluctuations. Of particular attention were debt service numbers between $147 million and $155 million. It was explained that the $8 million discrepancy related to the County’s pension fund, which unlike past Capitol Improvement Project (CIP) debt, is not liable to a bank call, unless as Daley observed, the entire County staff hit retirement age at the same time.
As the actual numbers stand, Cullers cited an annual debt service of $953,000 to be covered. So, the supervisors are likely to be encouraging bond consultant Davenport & Company to be keeping a close eye on the approaching market numbers impacting potential savings on a group re-financing of a large portion of the CIP debt related to past public school and other construction projects.
Variables related to the aftermath of the Town-County Economic Development Authority (EDA) financial scandal, including still being prepared 2018 and 2019 EDA audits, as well as legal expenses were also prominent on the supervisors’ radar. Replying to a question from the chairwoman, Interim County Administrator Daley noted that the audit report “does not include EDA debt” but “did include County expenditures” on the EDA’s legal and operational expenses. There also was a $1-million discrepancy in EDA legal fees that seemed to be floating as an unresolved number.
Overwhelmed by “finicky numbers”, floating numbers, and delayed reporting of some budget variables during the past year, Board Chair Cullers commented several times, “It’s clear as mud” to which North River Supervisor Oates added, “Now, I’m really confused.”
Perhaps trying to cheer the supervisors up after their emersion into the depths of municipal finances, Daley suggested next year’s process would be easier after their “training” with this year’s budget and all its staffing and emerging post-EDA financial scandal variables.
Which way to tourism dollars?
On the Wayfinding Sign front, long-time County Planning Director and new Deputy County Administrator Logan reviewed the 20-year joint Town-County effort and new signage planned on both sides of the town-county line. She explained an urgency on the Town side related to new signage that would be paid for through the Town Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) that carries a spending deadline approaching at the end of the month.
She said that an MOA (Memorandum Of Agreement) between the municipalities was anticipated to be presented to the Board at its March 16 meeting.
Responding to a question from Fork District Supervisor Archie Fox, Logan explained that Wayfinding sign guidelines on the State side prevented Wayfinding Signs directing motorists to specific private business locations like motels, restaurants etc. However, she noted that other types of municipally developed signage, particularly in town, could be utilized outside the Wayfinding Sign Project to alert tourists to those types of amenities available in the town and county.
Logan also reviewed how the changes from a Town Tourism Department and move to outside private-sector contracted marketers advised by the Joint Town-County Tourism Committee were impacting Tourism promotion on both sides of the town-county line.
Approaching the two-hour mark, Daley and Finance Director McLiverty’s report was fairly brief, with Daley telling the supervisors, minus absent Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter, that they would return at the end of the following week with the FY-2022 Budget summary.
It was noted near the work session’s end that the planned Joint Meeting, Retreat or “Advance” as it is now being referenced, with the Front Royal Town Council is targeted for May, though no date has yet been established.
For more detail on all these discussions watch the linked County meeting video and/or view the linked PowerPoint presentations.
- Warren County Audit Presentation – FY2020
- Wayfinding Sign Report – March 2021
- Warren Comp Annual Finance Report – 2020
EDA welcomes Town Manager Steven Hicks to meeting & gets good news from McDonald bankruptcy hearing
Things appear to continue to be turning in a positive direction for the Warren County Economic Development Authority (WC-EDA) in the wake of the recent sale of the Afton Inn for redevelopment by the 2 East Main LLC investment group. On the heels of that sale, authorized at a Special Meeting of February 12 and finalized a week later, the WC-EDA held its monthly meeting by way of the now familiar virtually connected ZOOM format the morning of Friday, February 26.
Two things stood out during the open session sandwiching a 57-minute closed session. The first was the welcoming of Town Manager Steven Hicks shortly after the 8 a.m. meeting start. It was the first appearance of a town manager with an accompanying update on Town business at an EDA Board of Directors meeting in about 18 months.
That traditional line of communications was terminated during the tenure of former Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick as the town government took on an increasingly adversarial and litigious stance with the EDA as a revamped EDA board worked to right its ship in the wake of the $21-million-plus financial scandal alleged to have developed during the tenure of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.
EDA civil litigation gets reboot
The second positive note came post closed session during Board Chairman Jeff Browne’s Executive Committee Report. Browne acknowledged a decision by Harrisonburg-based U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Rebecca B. Connelly returning consideration of exactly what assets Jennifer McDonald can claim as part of her bankruptcy filing to the state court level.
“The bankruptcy court has remanded her particular case to state court to assess damages, at which point damages are assessed it will go back to the bankruptcy court to decide whether or not it should go back to the state courts or be handled in the bankruptcy court,” Browne told his board.
Contacted after the meeting, Browne elaborated on the implications of Judge Connelly’s ruling. He explained it will allow the EDA’s civil litigation against McDonald to re-start to determine exactly what EDA assets McDonald may have misappropriated and how they may have been used to purchase properties or other tangible assets. Her surviving real estate company MoveOn8 is also part of her bankruptcy filing, he noted.
When the state court findings are returned to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Harrisonburg, Judge Connelly will determine what assets McDonald can legitimately claim as her own that are subject to bankruptcy claims and asset distribution, versus what assets held by her or her real estate company the EDA would have civil claim to as restitution for her alleged criminal acts of embezzlement and misappropriation of EDA funds to her own use.
A virtual Town-EDA ‘lovefest’
Back on the Town-EDA relations front, EDA Board Chairman Browne welcomed Hicks by virtual connection, offering him the opportunity to give his report prior to adjournment to the closed session. And while an opening portion of that report was acknowledgment of the town council’s decision to move forward with creation of its own EDA with Hicks as executive director, that there was a renewed sense of Town-EDA cooperation was soon apparent.
“As town manager I’m here to help in any way I can,” Hicks told Browne and the four-member EDA Board quorum present virtually (Browne, Harold, Pattison, Wolfe), before reporting on the status of the Town’s FY-2022 Budget process.
“I just want to congratulate you on your new position. You must have found the secret to a 48-hour day,” Browne told Hicks at the conclusion of the town manager’s report. “I just want to tell you for our board, that anything we can do to help in the areas you’re focused on: redevelopment, tourism, retention of businesses are all good things that we look forward to working with FREDA (Front Royal Economic Development Authority) on.
“We would like to work with you and coordinate with the Town. I think that we can do a lot to help economic development for the entire area. So, we appreciate you’re stepping up and taking on what will be a challenging task,” Browne added of Hicks new dual role.
“Will do – I’ll definitely stay in contact and share everything as much as I can with you and Doug (EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons) and Ed (Warren County Interim County Administrator Ed Daley). So yea, sounds great,” Hicks replied.
At that point EDA Board member Jim Wolfe, who has taken point in his board’s work on development of short and long-term Strategic Planning on economic development and job creation, joined the conversation. Wolfe offered to get a copy of what the WC-EDA has done on that front recently to Hicks by Monday.
“Then you and I can sit down and talk about it at some point. And if any other board members want to join me … So, I want to make sure that the … Town has our plan and use that for a touch point for how you coordinate on different projects,” Wolfe said of developing a unified plan of action community wide.
“I’d appreciate that,” Hicks replied, perhaps seeing his “48-hour days” reduced in some measure by that level of County EDA involvement with his work on the Town side. Continuing in that vein of cooperation, Hicks added, “Again, I just wanted to call in (on ZOOM) and touch base with you all and be as transparent as I can. And always reach out to me when you need anything, and I’ll do the same.”
“Good, thank you so much,” Browne replied to the new attitude being reflected out of Front Royal Town Hall as Hicks signed off from the meeting.