As the November 3, 2020 election approaches with alarms bells being sounded by both major party leaderships over attempts to interfere, manipulate or otherwise impact results in a fraudulent way, security issues have filtered down through state to local voter registrar departments in an attempt to minimize threats to the integrity of the foundation of our system of government – fair elections in which all eligible citizens may participate and have their votes counted.
And on Tuesday, September 8, the Warren County Board of Supervisors received a briefing on County Voter Registrar Carol Tobin’s work, some mandated by the state government, to ensure the integrity of our community’s election result. Tobin reminded the board that following implementation of “minimum standards for cybersecurity” enacted by the Virginia General Assembly, in August the board had authorized the County Registrar to prepare a mandated self-assessment of the county’s voting apparatus’ security from hacking or other outside interference.
She noted that with the help of the County Public School system’s IT director Tim Grant it was determined the County didn’t have the resources to accomplish the required cyber-security assessment. So, Assura Inc. was contracted for the work. Tobin introduced the Assura CEO to the supervisors.
“Cybersecurity, that’s a pretty charged subject, right?” Assura CEO Karen Cole said in introducing her summary of her company’s cyber-security assessment for Warren County. “And what I’d like to talk to you about this evening is where we are with elections, where we’re going, and some touchpoints to the … the county as a whole.”
“With respect to our upcoming election, it is quite a target for threat actors. And over the past several months we’ve seen an increase from foreign agents from Russia, China, and Iran. And last week we saw some new actors that we had not seen, with Cuba, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia,” Cole said of new international players our national security apparatus has identified as making cyber moves into the American political or informational sphere.
She explained that as technology and hacking have evolved, targeting has moved from a focus on larger communities to all sizes including smaller communities.
“And so localities are a rich target, not just from where elections are held, but from the treasure trove of confidential information that is maintained at the locality from all levels of government.
So, when working with our clients, we are starting out with election protection because we want to definitely make sure that you all are ready and protected for this election. That’s not to say you don’t already have cyber-security protections in place.
“But it’s important as board members that you understand that cyber-security is a moving target. And it’s always at the forefront of leadership because at the end of the day cyber-security is not a technology issue, cyber-security is a people issue. The majority of data breaches happen because of human behavior, not because of technology,” Cole explained of a multi-dimensional threat involving humans at both ends of the hacking and being hacked equation.
She continued to explain her company’s focus, in two areas, first “a technology space” where they assure a lockdown of assembled online information, records and communications, and a “risk and compliance side”. The latter she described as “that program management piece” or the human side of the equation on the targeted side.
“However, this is a starting point,” Cole explained, continuing with a nod toward Interim County Administrator Ed Daley, “And one of the things I’m excited to see, and I thank Mr. Daley as we’ve moved forward with this contract, is that he does recognize the importance of cyber and that this becomes an effort that supports everything that you do. It ties to your Strategic Plan.”
Cole pointed to earlier meeting conversations about broadband service expansion and “swapping out systems and new capabilities” in explaining the lasting and expansive importance of a refined cyber-security system to the municipality beyond the 2020 election.
“Cyber-security is a piece of that because in every major technological initiative there are also people out there that are threatening to take that away. So, there’s a balance out there. But we are going to start off with elections,” Cole said, refocusing on the immediate issue at hand, a 2020 election on the national side that is likely to be the most contentious and contested result, perhaps in American history.
“One of the things, as we start, is we will be building a roadmap, and that roadmap will be the one-to-three-year plan for elections to make sure that, not only are we meeting the requirements of the Commonwealth of Virginia but that it’s right-sized for her department,” Cole said gesturing toward Tobin, noting that a plan that does not fit the implementation capabilities of the department it is created for will do little good collecting dust on a shelf somewhere in the halls of government.
So, if election cyber-security is the short-term goal, the long-term goal is cyber-security throughout County departments, including the public-school system at a time of increased remote, virtual instruction due to the ongoing Coronavirus-2019 pandemic threat.
“At the end of the day you all are sharing a significant amount of data and resources. You all deserve to be protected, your citizens and stakeholders deserve to be protected,” Cole told county officials.
Responding to a question from Fork District Supervisor Archie Fox on the general security of the County’s current voting machines after passing through several varieties as electronic voting machines came and went out of vogue, Tobin responded positively.
“Well, we’ve got a paper trail – so the scanner reads the ballots, it’s a digital scan that makes the count. So, we always have that paper trail as backup and that’s what the people want. So, I would say I think we’re there,” the county registrar replied to Fox.
State weighs in
In a related development three days after Cole’s appearance with Tobin at the board of supervisors meeting, a September 11 press release from the Virginia Department of Elections highlighted the State’s “Defending Democracy” Election Security Initiative.
“Virginians should feel confident that their votes will be counted accurately. The Department of Elections has worked to remove unsecured voting systems from service at the local level and promoting the transition to modern voting systems using voter-verified paper-based balloting. Furthermore, the equipment voters use to cast their ballots in Virginia are not connected to the Internet,” the release pointed out.
“Ensuring the integrity of our elections has always been and will continue to be a top priority for election officials across the Commonwealth. Protecting the vote is Defending our Democracy. We want Virginians to know that protecting elections is an ongoing process, and we are honored to serve the Commonwealth by doing so,” said Christopher Piper, Commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections, who added, “During a time when our society is being overwhelmed by so much misinformation, we are committed to ensuring that we let Virginians know that they can trust the elections process.”
Now if he could assure that all mail-in ballots are delivered during an ongoing Coronavirus pandemic that is likely to have killed over 220,000 Americans by Election Day (191,353 U.S. deaths reported on 9/11/20), maybe everybody could settle down a little.
SECURING YOUR VOTE
The Department of Elections encourages voters to take the following steps to help promote election security and voter confidence:
● Check your voter registration status to ensure that it is current and/or find your polling place. Virginia provides a secure way for Virginia voters to access their registration information through our citizen portal: https://www.elections.virginia.gov/citizen-portal/.
● Only utilize trusted sources such as state and county agencies for election information.
Town ponders its CARES Act reimbursement dilemma at end of brief Monday work session
After discussion of a change to Town policy on the vacating of streets and alleyways to accommodate past adjustments and high costs associated with assessments by real estate assessors for the government-owned property; and a review of evolving Fiscal Year 2021 revenue streams from taxes and utility/enterprise and general funds, the Front Royal Town Council focused on a lingering sore point.
That point is the County’s reluctance to take the town governmental apparatus at its word on assuming financial liability for any distribution of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved funding found to not meet federal and state standards for that distribution. As previously reported, as the recipient of that federal, state-distributed money received in two $3.5 million dollar phases, about $1.2 million of which was allotted to the Town for in-Town distribution, the County is liable to reimburse the state and federal sources of that money for any portions found to not have met the federally implemented standards for qualifying business, non-profits or individual recipients.
“I don’t know what their issue is – we justified it under the CARES Act; we laid it out very specifically where in the CARES Act it’s been spent,” Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick told council citing two specific areas the County is apparently concerned about qualifying. “So, we’ll just continue to play the game and see what happens.”
“I’m concerned about getting the $970,000,” Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock told his colleagues of the money the Town has fronted out of its own General Fund budget toward what it believes to be qualifying businesses in town. That thus-far Town-absorbed expenditure is what the Town is hoping for in first-round CARES distribution reimbursement from the County.
“I can certainly appreciate that they want some checks and balances … but if we’re completely liable which we’ve signed agreements on, saying that if any of the CARES Act is spent inappropriately the Town will fund or refund,” Councilman Jacob Meza said when Tederick interrupted him.
“Let me correct you on that, Mr. Meza, we never, we haven’t signed that,” Tederick interjected, leading several councilmen including Meza to add, “But we’ve offered to do it.” Meza added, “I’d like to reoffer that and move on.”
“We’ve offered that, and they want us to take the liability, and they want to approve the spending plan, and they want us to spend the money out of our reserves, and they want us to submit the reports, and they’ll tell us whether they’re going to reimburse us. So, it’s just very convoluted. I’ve done everything I can do to get this through,” Tederick told council.
Absent from the discussion was the likely lack of County trust of Town financial “promises” in the wake of a year-and-a-half impasse on the Town accepting financial liability to pay for its $9-million dollar police station financed through what is now a solely-County supported Town-County Economic Development Authority.
However, further discussion indicated that several involved county officials had indicated a first reimbursement check from the County was anticipated early this week that had not yet been received as of Monday night.
“Well, it is Monday,” Councilwoman Lori Cockrell observed, acknowledging that Tuesday was also “early in the week”.
See Council’s full discussion on its CARES Act reimbursement concerns, as well as the street and alley vacating adjustments and FY-21 revenue numbers in this Royal Examiner video of council’s 20-minute open session work session.
Council then adjourned to closed session to discuss its permanent town manager search, the now dueling civil litigations with the EDA, and the disposition of undisclosed public property. And the following day the Town announced a full town council press conference to address the EDA litigation to be held Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Warren County Government Center.
That announcement stated that the press conference “will cover major developments regarding the Town of Front Royal\EDA lawsuit. Statements will be given by each Council member”.
Stay tuned for that exciting development as it unfolds Wednesday …
Town press release says it was working on FRPD financing when EDA suit filed
In a press release issued at 3:15 p.m., Friday afternoon, from the office of Town of Front Royal Information Technology and Communications Director Todd Jones, Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick responds with astonishment, and some astonishing news, in reaction to the EDA filing of a lawsuit Thursday to recover the nearly $9 million cost of the new FRPD headquarters.
That news is that the Town was in the process of acquiring bank financing to pay the principal amount, if not interest, on the new town police headquarters this week.
As previously reported, at Monday’s Front Royal Town Council meeting Councilman and mayoral candidate Chris Holloway read a three-page prepared statement into the record on the Town’s stance on its lack of obligation “legal, moral or otherwise … to repay these unlawful debts” to cover what was termed “a fraudulent, unauthorized loan” acquired by the EDA to finance the FRPD headquarters construction project for the Town.
Holloway confirmed that the statement was prepared by the Town’s contracted Damiani & Damiani law firm that is handling its $20-million-plus lawsuit against the EDA, in response to his inquiry on the matter.
The statement also states that the Town “has explored other means of resolving the issue” and “is willing to make payments to the EDA for the Police Department Headquarters that are equal to the payments that Town Council authorized, which include the entire principal debt at the authorized interest rate.”
It would seem somewhere along the negotiating lines between the Town, County, and EDA, there has been a failure to communicate essential information.
Here is the Town press release and Tederick’s statement in its entirety:
The EDA Sues the Town of Front Royal on the Verge of Obtaining a Loan
24 Hours After the Town Receiving Bank Term Sheet, EDA Sues. Coincidence?
The Town of Front Royal filed a $20,226,153 lawsuit against the Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) in an effort to recover money fraudulently obtained by the ex-Executive Director, Jennifer McDonald, and perhaps others under the failed oversight of the Economic Development Board of Directors.
Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick commented, “This lawsuit is really bizarre, less than twenty-four hours after I received a formal Term Sheet from a lending institution to pay the principle balance which the County, the EDA, and the Town do not dispute, the EDA calls a Special Meeting, one day before it’s normal meeting date, and decides to file a Complaint and Writ of Mandamus against the Town, effectively preventing the Town from obtaining the very financing being demanded. Coincidence?
“Just yesterday I received a call from Ed Daley, Interim County Administrator, who asked me if the EDA’s Finance Director could meet with the Town’s Finance Director to reconcile Leach Run Parkway accounting. Of course, I eagerly and happily agreed. Then, 24 hours later, the EDA sues the Town. Coincidence?
“As much as I would personally like to litigate this matter in the court of public opinion, as the EDA has done, I will not. This much I will say, the EDA has caused great harm to the citizens of the Town of Front Royal, and yet, no one has been brought to justice and the EDA continually claims to be the victim. The EDA is responsible for the negative consequences flowing from the actions of its ex Executive Director. The Town is trying to assist in dealing with the economic fallout, but ultimate responsibility remains with the EDA. The Town intends to continue its efforts to finance the Police Department Headquarters.”
Acting EDA Chairman reflects on September 17th legal action against Town
Following Thursday morning’s announcement of the filing of civil litigation against the Town of Front Royal to recover nearly $9-million dollars spent to construct the new town police headquarters, Acting Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne told Royal Examiner that United Bank officials, holders of the EDA’s FRPD loan, were aware of the developing situation that could see those debt service payments stop next month.
As reported in our lead story, September’s payment will be the last made by either the EDA or Warren County in support of the EDA debt service on the police station project. Town officials have been informed of this situation, Browne told us. So, as noted in our companion story unless the Front Royal Town Council authorizes assumption of that United Bank debt service, payments on the new town police station will go into default by mid-October. Those payments come due 10 days after receipt of monthly payment-due notices at the beginning of the month.
Of the Town’s stance in previous direct negotiations on the matter, Browne said, “The only thing that they consistently said is that ‘we believe you guaranteed us a one-and-a-half percent interest rate.’ Okay, you can state that, and we can get to deciding that. But that would mean that you would go ahead and pay the principal off; you pay the one-and-a-half percent – none of which is there is any question about.
“The new wrinkle was this week when the argument was made that the loan, I’m not sure what, is fraudulent. Therefore the Town doesn’t need to pay it,” Browne said again referencing Councilman Chris Holloway’s September 14 reading of a contract attorney-prepared statement into the council meeting record about why the Town has no obligation to pay for its police station. – Though it sure makes it easier to accomplish capital improvements while promising to never raise taxes, as Holloway did during the recent County Republican Committee Candidates Forum.
“But again, disingenuous that your police force is sitting in a building that’s been approved, and they approved it,” Browne observed.
Queried about that approval, Browne continued, “They actually have several resolutions, in the lawsuit you’ll see we hung our hat on the last one, which increased the amount to $12 million dollars. And again a resolution, no indication of what the interest rate was or anything regarding it.”
He added that the EDA was in possession of correspondences from the town finance department acknowledging approval of various aspects of the construction project and payment of those aspects.
“The lawsuit is very clearly written – it isn’t 500 different contentions. It’s just a simple story and then alternate legal theories as to why we ought to get it,” Browne said, revisiting a perceived difference in the new EDA litigation and the Town’s now amended litigation that has grown from an initial estimated $2 million amount to “over $20 million” at this point.
As our post-meeting conversation was winding down, Browne said, “What I would leave you with, is when you direct someone to build something for you; you approve all the construction invoices; and then you occupy the place, to have an argument for any real reason that you don’t owe that sum of money seems to me to be disingenuous. And it’s time that the Town pay its bill,” Browne said.
“We’re sad that it’s come to this – but we had no choice. I didn’t get into the EDA to fight with the Town,” Browne said in wrapping up. “I loathe that we have to be doing this when we should be concentrating on economic development. If the Town wanted to help resolve all this they would help work on our lawsuit (against McDonald and her co-defendants).
“I hope they come to their senses, get financing and we can begin all working together. We are one community,” Browne concluded.
Whether it is one community on the up or down side of future economic development will apparently be decided over the next 23 days or so as the deadline on payment of the October FRPD debt service, the final interest only payment of $21,000-plus to United Bank, approaches.
The ball, to use a sports metaphor, has landed with a thud on the Town side of this legal and financial court (pun intended).
No more Mr. Nice Guy – EDA files suit to recover FRPD costs from Town
Following a 50-minute Special Meeting closed session on Thursday morning, September 17, the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors unanimously authorized attorney Rosalie Fessier of the Timberlake-Smith law firm to file suit against the Town of Front Royal to recover the current approximate $9-million cost of construction of the new Front Royal Police headquarters.
Fessier is Staunton-based Timberlake-Smith’s lead counsel representing the EDA in the Town of Front Royal’s $20-million-plus civil litigation against the half-century-old Town-County EDA.
The motion, made by Tom Pattison, seconded by Greg Harold, passed by a 6-0 vote with all board members virtually present. Chairman Ed Daley’s seat remains vacant in the wake of his appointment as Warren County’s interim county administrator. The plan is for him to return to his EDA board seat following the hiring of a permanent successor to Doug Stanley.
In Daley’s absence, Vice-Chairman Jeff Browne chaired the virtually conducted ZOOM meeting from the EDA’s Kendrick Lane headquarters. In the wake of the 8:55 a.m. adjournment of the special meeting this reporter met Browne at the EDA office complex about a half block from the police station.
When we arrived, Browne was still going over paperwork on the civil litigation with Fessier. Following her departure, Browne said the attorney was going to the Warren County Courthouse to file the lawsuit, after which copies would be made available to the media.
Browne explained that the suit is for principal and interest at the rate of the actual United Bank loan, initially 4% then adjusted to the current 3% rate, for a total of just under $9 million dollars. He elaborated that the suit is for money due to the EDA that is in no way impacted by the alleged embezzlements, misdirection of assets or other financial misdeeds attributed to former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.
“There isn’t any question about that,” Browne said flatly. “And I’ll say this, on anything that we’re asking the Town payment for, we would not ever include anything that was not a legitimate bill. We’re not trying to get them to pay for illegal activities we believe other people did, it’s not going to happen.”
We asked the acting EDA chairman what led to this decision.
“Well, I think the EDA and the County have paid on the Town’s obligation for over a year. And the goal there was to give the Town time to get the financing that it needed and to do the right thing. And they kept promising this in meetings that we had with them.
“So, in good faith we went ahead and did that even though there’s no obligations to pay anything on the police station. So, between just the lack of forward progress on the negotiations, and more recently what came out of town council this week suggested that the timing was something that we had to do to get them to focus on this,” Browne said.
His “this week” reference was to the Town’s EDA civil litigation contract attorney-prepared statement on the Town’s legal stance on the FRPD financial situation read into the record by Councilman and mayoral candidate Chris Holloway on Monday, September 14.
As previously reported, as of November 1 debt service payments on the FRPD project go from interest only in the $21,000 range to principal and interest to around $50,000 monthly.
“And we’re not going to be paying October either, neither is the County,” Browne said of the FRPD debt service coming due in two weeks that the EDA is no longer in a position to cover financially. “The County informed us, we’ve informed the Town that we’re not going to be paying any more on the police station.”
Truth or dare?
As to a timeline other than the litigation being immediately filed at the courthouse, Browne said, “We waived a jury trial, jury trials are going to take a long time given the COVID circumstances.” As a note, the Town is seeking a civil jury trial in its suit against the EDA.
“It’s a very clean case, when you read it, it describes: here’s the facts; they’re all very well documented; and here’s our arguments about why we should get the money,” Browne said of what was on its way to the Warren County Courthouse as we spoke.
Browne elaborated that the EDA case documentation is based in real documents, signed by town officials among others, as opposed to revolving around alleged verbal promises of the former EDA executive director that contradicted known, verified facts about FRPD project financing options. It was a none-to-subtle poke at the foundation of the Town civil action against the EDA.
“And to call them verbal promises even, is perhaps too much,” Browne said of the Town litigation, litigation justified in the above-mentioned attorney-prepared three-page statement read into the Front Royal Town Council meeting record four days earlier by Councilman Holloway.
“When you say you anticipate one-and-a-half percent (interest), it’s like me going fishing and saying I anticipate I’ll catch fish – I sure hope to. But in this case the Town bet and lost. It thought it could get the one-and-a-half percent, was hoping it would get it but knew full well it wasn’t a guaranteed thing. And it turned out it wasn’t,” Browne commented of the underlying Town litigation logic.
Clean or not, the odds are short in “Vegas” that the EDA civil litigation against the Town will be heard within the next month when payments on the police station will stop being made if the Town does not pick them up.
And if they don’t, the Front Royal Town Council is perhaps staking an entire community’s ability to finance future projects on a new “gamble”. That gamble is that it will be judged legally and financially immune from the consequences of its own lack of due diligence, oversight or verification that the 30-year, 1.5% interest rate it hoped for based on verbal “promises” of a now-discredited EDA executive director was even available to it, much less a done deal.
It seems a steep gamble in that those verbal promises flew in the face of what Browne says are signed documents, as well as information from the New Market Tax Credit program administrator, and information and recommendations from its own administrative and financial staff at the time.
If you want to see the consequence of those kinds of gambles, I have been told an exploration of the experience of the Virginia community of Buena Vista, also known colloquially as “Una-Vista”, went some 10 years ago when it declined to meet a financial moral obligation debt service. Spoiler alert – they have not been able to acquire public or private financing for anything since.
Now officials in two municipalities here are left to ponder whether that is a gamble worth taking on the strength their relative civil legal filings, directly or indirectly through their half-century old joint EDA.
Town Planning Commission approves EDA rezoning request
The Front Royal Planning Commission held its regular meeting September 16th at the Warren County Government Center. There were no public presentations, and the commission had only one item to consider and solicit public input for. The commission reviewed a proposed rezoning of approximately 62.7 acres at the end of Progress Drive, adjacent to the Happy Creek Technology Park. The proposed rezoning, from Residential (R-1) to Industrial Employment (I-2) is a preliminary step to potential future development. Any development would require permits and approvals separately from the rezoning request. The purpose of the EDA action is to improve the site status from Tier 1 to Tier 2 of the Virginia Business Ready Sites Program and possible future expansion of the adjacent Technology Park.
The proposal contained several proffers, or terms and conditions, that enhance the proposal’s value to the town. The proffers are:
- A 25-foot landscaping buffer for visual screening, to preserve existing woodland and add trees and shrubs along the border of the non-wooded areas.
- A By-Right land use will not be restricted, but business and professional offices, technology businesses including data centers, veterinary hospitals, pharmaceutical and/or medical schools, public facilities and special childcare services will be preferred.
- A dedicated Right-of-way of 60 ft for the continuation of Progress Drive will be provided to meet all town and Virginia Dept of transportation standards when a final site plan is developed for future use.
- A Traffic Impact analysis was estimated at a peak hourly rate of 124 trips, but a new analysis will be provided upon any development in the future.
Chairman Douglas Jones opened the floor for public comment, but there was none.
A motion to approve the proposal was made by Commissioner Merchant, Seconded by Vice Chairman McFadden. Brief discussion ensued regarding whether the acceptance of the proffers should be made part of the motion to approve. An Amended motion including the proffers was unanimously approved.
The Planning Department Staff announced the new Director of Community Development and Planning, Timothy Wilson. Commissioner Merchant asked if there was progress on recruiting new planning commission members. Director Wilson indicated that action was underway by Town Council.
There being no other business, the commission adjourned at 7:15.
EDA releases statement on litigation over police station debt
At a Special Board meeting this morning, the EDA Board of Directors unanimously approved a resolution to sue the Town of Front Royal for the recovery of $8,946,742 in principal and interest on the loans the EDA obtained on behalf of the Town to build the new Front Royal Police Station. Rosalie Fessier with the firm of Timberlake Smith was retained to represent the EDA in this matter.
The EDA initiated negotiations multiple times over the last year to get the Town Council to honor its obligations to pay for the Town’s Police Station. Despite promises to secure financing, the Town Council has not paid any principal or interest on the loan.
As a result of the Town’s failure to pay for its own building, the EDA and Warren County have been paying monthly construction loans to build the Police Station to give the Town Council time to secure its own loan. That will no longer continue. The Town Council needs to find its own funding on its Police Station.
We urge the Town Council to take immediate action to secure a loan to cover the costs it has incurred on the Police Station and other projects it has run through EDA. While litigation appears to be the only recourse for the EDA, litigation will only hurt Town taxpayers who must fund those costs.