Following a 25 minute closed session discussion of legal matters including loans, accounting, debt service and matters involving First Bank & Trust the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Board of Directors made no announcements regarding any of those matters at a Special Meeting called for Friday morning, October 11.
The EDA Board met in closed session the previous day in what was termed an Emergency Finance Committee Meeting. A number of First Bank & Trust officials from Abington were present for the meeting. First Bank & Trust is the holder of the $10 million EDA loan to ITFederal that is part of the $21.3 million in assets the EDA is seeking recovery of in its civil litigation. As previously noted by Royal Examiner, including in yesterday’s Opinion piece “County, EDA officials cited for failed oversight – why not the Town?” EDA officials say the ITFederal loan was acquired “under false pretenses”.
While there were no announcements forthcoming from either closed session, in open session near the end of Friday’s meeting Tom Patteson did announce his resignation as Treasurer and member of the Finance Committee, effective at the end of October. Patteson noted he is not resigning from the EDA board.
Following Patteson’s announcement of his pull back on official duties the board convened an Asset Committee meeting during which EDA Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson did a power point presentation locating EDA properties, including some small ones along Leach Run Parkway she noted she had discovered by accident during a search of the County Global Imaging site <WarrenGIS.org>.
The global imaging presentation on the location of EDA properties served as a prelude to a tour of some of those properties by the board following adjournment of meeting. Properties visited included the 426 Baugh Drive warehouse, the 404 Fairgrounds Road office building, and vacant Happy Creek Technology Park properties off Shenandoah Shores Road.
During a brief open session at the outset of Friday’s special meeting the EDA board authorized closing of one of its bank accounts with First Bank of Strasburg. Henderson later explained the move as part of the EDA’s consolidation and transfer of financial assets over to Warren County, which has agreed to become fiscal agent for the EDA.
The transfer of financial responsibility to the County government is part of the EDA’s self-generated reform and move to transparency of operations as it deals with the repercussions of the contracted financial fraud investigation of public accounting firm Cherry Bekaert. Thus far the legal consequences of that investigation have centered on alleged actions of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald involving her real estate and certain other business dealings with family, friends and business associates.
One of those business dealings came into discussion during the first stage of the post-meeting tour of EDA properties. As staff explained an absence of electrical metering in one of the vacant spaces at the EDA’s Kendrick Lane Office complex, the issue of the Town’s sole authority to charge clients for power service in Town was broached.
While the Town opened a 15-acre solar field as part of its Energy Services Department in May 2017, the two roofs of the EDA office complex were not part of that solar field.
Director of Energy Services David Jenkins explained to this reporter that while the EDA would be able to provide power to its office and Kendrick Lane tenants from the rooftop solar array, that by Town Code the EDA would not be able to charge tenants for that power. So the EDA faces a decision to provide free power in the Kendrick Lane complex or abandon the solar power idea, at least as it applies to tenants there.
The contracting of solar panel installation by McDonald through her business associate Donnie Poe’s Earth Right Energy LLC (ERE) is one focus of the EDA’s $21.3 million dollar civil litigation. Of that amount, $945,037 is being sought from ERE for various projects EDA litigation states were never approved by the EDA Board of Directors or were approved under false pretenses.
Pages 31 and 32 of the amended EDA civil complaint indicate $536,037 of the ERE payments being sought for recovery were for “unapproved payments related to the solar installation at the Warren EDA’s offices on Kendrick Lane in Front Royal, Virginia.” The EDA contends McDonald told her board the Kendrick Lane solar installation would come at no cost to the EDA.
“She explained that the installation of equipment by Earth Right Energy would be absorbed by Earth Right Energy as part of a scheme whereby Earth Right Energy would either sell solar energy generated by equipment it installed and/or reimburse the Warren EDA through certain tax credits,” the EDA’s amended civil complaint states.
Be that as it may, the office spaces once occupied by Amerisist and the Selah Theater group in the east building were judged as very marketable as rentals, perhaps with some remodeling of the theater space to accommodate a new client’s business needs.
And then after one more quick Kendrick complex vacant space stop it was off to a tour of other major EDA properties around the town and county being marketed for sale.
In this first Royal Examiner video, watch the EDA meeting and tour presentation by EDA Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson:
In this second Royal Examiner video, go along on the tour of 426 Baugh Drive warehouse:
Town reversed initial commitment to cover Afton Inn ‘winterization’ costs
During an update on the status of various properties at a Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Asset Committee meeting, Friday morning, the status of the on-hold Afton Inn “winterization” project two months into the winter of 2019-20 was broached.
In the agenda summary the project, described as once “a high priority” of the town government, was now observed to apparently be dead in the cold winter elements.
According to Asset Committee Chairman Greg Harold, Town staff apparently did an about-face on responsibility for, or the necessity of, covering the winterization costs.
Harold told those present that since the Town approached the EDA about working together with Afton Inn redeveloper 2 East Main Street LLC in November to get the stabilization project underway to prevent further deterioration of the 151-year-old brick and wood building shell, he had a record of communications with Town Attorney Doug Napier indicating Town responsibility for, and intent of, paying for the winterization work.
At various points in those communications a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) dating to the 2014 transfer of ownership from the Town to the EDA for marketing and redevelopment purposes was referenced; as was Napier’s written expression of a “moral obligation” of the Town to provide for the “safety and welfare” of its citizens as pieces began falling off the building; and former Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp’s written notice of the apparent availability of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for the Main Street façade improvement work that could be utilized by the Town to pay for its own staff to work on the winterization project.
Consequently, Harold noted the EDA spent $3,500 on an engineering report to get a cost estimate on the project to the Town. However, several subsequent emails from the Town indicated logistical complications discovered by its staff leading to the likelihood of increased costs.
Harold observed that Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick had stepped in at a mid-December EDA board meeting to state that earlier communications indicating the Town would cover the winterization costs were a “mistake”.
Harold noted that his response to Town Attorney Napier asking for substantiation to support the interim town manager’s assertion was forwarded to the Town’s outside counsel, Damiani & Damiani, handling its civil claims against the EDA with no further communications.
However, EDA Board Treasurer Jorie Martin interjected by phone hook up that she had one initial communication from Damiani & Damiani stating that they “would get back to us” after which there were no further communications.
In that December 19 email to Napier forwarded to the Town’s outside counsel, Harold wrote, “I have read the MOA, and I am not able to find any subordination clause or other languages that strips Front Royal of this requirement (of funding),” adding, “Contrarily, there are 2 paragraphs which explicitly detail and reaffirm the town’s commitment.”
One of those paragraphs from the MOU dated June 23, 2014, is quoted stating, “The Town agrees that during ownership of the Afton Inn property by the EDA, the Town shall not require the EDA to perform any repairs, maintenance or demolition of any part of the Afton Inn building unless the Town agrees to bear the costs of such repairs, maintenance or demolition.”
The following paragraph describes the Afton Inn’s close proximity to Town Hall at the head of the East Main Street Historic Downtown Business District, observing, “The Town has clearly identifiable interests in the use to be made and in the appearance, of the Afton Inn property … As such, the Town has an appropriate, identifiable interest in keeping the Afton Inn property in both a viable safe physical condition and an aesthetically pleasing condition.”
It was again noted that 2 East Main Street LLC continues to express hope of maintaining its interest in the Afton renovation project now stalled by the EDA’s financial dilemma tied to the financial scandal asserted in the County-EDA funded Cherry Bekaert forensic audit of EDA business in recent years.
And put up a parking lot?
However, it would appear in this season of the interim town manager and a new council majority committed to cost and tax reductions despite $29 million in capital improvement funding needs in the coming budget year, those steering the ship of Front Royal Town government have simply decided the Afton Inn’s appearance, condition and redevelopment are no longer fiscal priorities.
As the discussion moved to the collection of bad debts, EDA Board Vice Chairman Jeff Browne noted that since the involvement of the EDA’s contracted attorney, the first check from a debtor had been received – “We just have to pick it up … so, we’re already starting to see results,” Browne told the Asset Committee, leading Board Chairman Ed Daley to quip, “Was this a large check from a municipal corporation that owes us a very significant amount of money?”
“The answer would be no,” Browne replied, dashing the hope the Town had decided to make good on at least a portion of its undisputed $8.4 million debt to the EDA on the principal for the Town Police Department construction project, if not on Afton Inn winterization costs.
See this discussion just past the 38-minute mark of the linked Royal Examiner video, as well as other topics in the entire meeting video. Among topics discussed were bids received on removal of the solar panels on the EDA’s Kendrick Lane office complex; a pending closing date of February 28 on the Stokes Mart property sale; and re-acquisition of the Workforce Housing parcel, hopefully, at the same $10 price, it was inexplicably transferred to the Cornerstone LLC branch of the Aikens Group in late November 2018 for.
After initially being “gifted” to the EDA for $10, due to unmet, publicly undisclosed deadlines not being met, the EDA acquired the property at a cost of $445,000, with additional resources allegedly being committed to the project leading to the property being written off as a $600,000-plus loss.
In addition to Harold, Daley, Browne, and Martin, the latter by phone hookup, present at Friday’s Asset Committee meeting were EDA attorney Sharon Pandak, also by phone connection, EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons and South River Supervisor Cheryl Cullers.
Town, County, EDA join forces with commercial realty community
At 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, February 19, members of the local real estate brokers community gathered at the Kendrick Lane Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development office for a “Commercial Property Open House.
After some breakfast snacks provided by the EDA through the Shenandoah Valley Golf Club’s catering service and a briefing by EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons on economic incentives available locally and through the state economic development partnership, the group representing 10 realty companies, accompanied by EDA, Town and County officials began the tour close by.
First to be viewed of 28 properties were two vacant offices in the EDA office complex at 400 Kendrick Lane. Then it was on to the Town Trolley for a foray into the adjacent Royal Phoenix Business Park’s 117 vacant acres before heading into the Route 522/340 North Commercial and Industrial Corridor.
Royal Examiner caught up with Parsons and Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson shortly after noon following the Open House tour’s conclusion back in Front Royal. In fact, Parsons noted that of the 28 EDA overseen properties on the tour, all but seven were in the town limits.
On the Town side, Community Development Director Felicia Hart had taken the point, working with EDA Board Vice-Chairman Jeff Browne to propel the Commercial Property Open House forward. Following Hart’s January 29 termination with several other Town staff and department heads as part of the interim town manager’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal, Browne worked with Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick to see things moved forward on the logistical side.
Planning Director Taryn Logan represented Warren County and Chris Brock, who identified himself as Interim Planning and Zoning Director, was present for Front Royal. Parsons and Henderson acknowledged the contribution of town staff in preparation of a properties’ booklet for the open house and the provision of the trolley for the tour.
“Everybody’s working together,” we observed to Parsons of the joint EDA-Town-County driven interaction with local commercial realtors.
“Yes, as always,” the EDA executive director replied.
“Or at least ‘almost’ always,” we suggested of certain litigious efforts of one participating municipal partner. However, Parsons declined to take the bait, preferring to accentuate the positives of the day. So, we asked for his assessment of the day and its impetus.
“The idea behind the event was to bring together the Blue Ridge Association of Realtors members and take them on a tour of 28 properties here in Front Royal and Warren County that we think are good, viable properties for both commercial and industrial development. So, we looked at 21 properties in town and seven outside of town.
“I think we saw a good variety of buildings, vacant ground that could be used for a variety of purposes. I think the realtors appreciated the information, and I think it was a good partnership effort between the Town and the EDA. I want to thank Chris Brock and Alfredo Velasquez for their help in collating and binding the materials. And Chris’s expertise was a big part of the day as he was able to talk to the group about planning and zoning and certain properties in town.
“Taryn Logan was also a very valuable asset to help explain the planning and zoning in the county and some of the history of the properties.
“And a lot of the realtors that were on the tour, they knew a great deal about some of these properties because they’d either bought or sold them before; or had dealt with them in the past, so knew the history. There was a lot of knowledge on the bus which was shared amongst the group and hopefully, it’ll lead to some sales for some of the properties here in town – and out in the county,” Parsons concluded what he believes was a morning well spent.
Apparently the private sector participants agreed. A sign out sheet was punctuated with “Comments” including “Great Event”, “Good Idea”, “Thank you so much!!”, “Wonderful – very informative” and “Next Year?”
We asked Parsons about his pre-tour briefing on some financial incentives available through the Town, EDA and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP).
“I know a lot of times the real estate community in states across the nation may not be as in tune with the local and state incentives that these job developers’ programs have to offer. So, I was hoping to make them aware of what is out there for them in that regard … Because if you’re a realtor and you are dealing with someone and maybe there’s a ten or twenty thousand dollar gap in being able to close the deal, if you can bring the Virginia Jobs Investment Program incentive to the table, or the tech zone incentive here locally to the table, it could be a deal closer for someone,” Parsons observed.
And deal closings on some commercial properties are what the EDA, its municipal partners, and private sector realtors are all looking to make happen.
EDA presents budget proposal to Board of Supervisors; delinquent taxes from contractors
On Tuesday, February 11 at the evening work session of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, the EDA Board and staff presented its budget proposal to get through the final 3 1/2 months of this fiscal year and to continue into FY 2021.
Also included on the agenda was a discussion with Building official David Beahm and Commissioner of the Revenue Sherry Sours on the payment of delinquent taxes and business license fees by contractors prior to issuance of building permits.
County Administrator Doug Stanley discussed the Department of Environmental Quality Financial Assurance requirements. Also, Stanley, along with County Attorney Jason Ham, discussed the management and lease agreements of the Front Royal Golf Club.
See the presentations, including discussion of the Town’s $8 million-plus debt to the EDA on the new police station and the status of the Front Royal Golf Club in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
EDA report to County – long-time annual auditor withdraws from lagging 2018 audit process
During one of six operational updates from entities with which it is either directly or indirectly involved at its Tuesday, February 4 meeting, the Warren County Board of Supervisors got what Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Doug Parson called “bad” and “very disappointing” news.
That news was that long-time EDA auditor Yount-Hyde-Barbour had withdrawn from the EDA’s 2018 audit process. That process is running considerably behind as the EDA tries to get to the bottom of the final year of a number of years during which a contracted financial investigation by Cherry Bekaert, known for its forensic audit discoveries of criminal financial behavior, alleged a number of years of financial improprieties within EDA operations.
The Cherry Bekaert investigation conducted from mid-September 2018 into the spring of 2019 has resulted in a $21.3-million EDA civil litigation against what currently stands at 14 human and business entity defendants and multiple financial felony indictments by a special grand jury empaneled to investigate potential criminality tied to the EDA civil litigation. At the center of both the civil and criminal cases is former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.
It was Yount-Hyde-Barbour that was contracted by the EDA to conduct its annual audits during most, if not all of the years during which the EDA financial scandal is believed to have occurred. In recent months retired Warren County Finance Director Carolyn Stimmel and Heather Tweedie of the auditing firm Hottel-Willis have been pouring through the EDA’s 2018 financial records trying to ascertain what EDA assets went where, how, to what purpose and most importantly, were those purposes legitimate and authorized by the EDA Board of Directors.
Yount-Hyde-Barbour had been expected to take the result of Stimmel and Tweedie’s work to belatedly conduct their annual audit for 2018. Completion of that audit has been termed crucial to the
EDA’s future ability to function as it attempts to traverse the operational aftermath of the financial crimes alleged to have occurred under McDonald’s decade of executive leadership of the EDA.
One EDA civil case defendant’s attorney wondered aloud during a past motions hearing that if their client was a defendant for the financial actions alleged against them, why the EDA auditor that had rubber stamped the EDA’s finances annually through the years of alleged embezzlements and misdirection of assets, wasn’t also a defendant.
Could Yount-Hyde-Barbour’s withdrawal from the 2018 audit process be an indicator of potential legal issues between the auditor and the EDA? In response to media questions Sands Anderson attorney Dan Siegel, present with lead EDA civil case attorney Cullen Seltzer for a closed session discussion with County officials of the EDA’s civil case landscape, said only that EDA counsel continues to explore potential legal liability in many directions.
VDOT Revenue Sharing
In other business Tuesday, after a week’s delay to allow new supervisors to gather additional information, the county board unanimously approved the County’s contribution to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Revenue Sharing Program. It was explained that the program that runs through multiple municipal fiscal year budgets allows involved municipalities to get a 50% revenue match from the State on needed and desired road improvements throughout the county.
Numbers presented projected the County’s contribution in the coming FY 2021 budget at $250,000. It was a number projected to remain constant in FY 2021 through FY 2024. Six total involved road project costs were cited at $2.9-million over a number of years, with a 25% County contribution total of $753,312.50 and a 25% contribution from involved Sanitary District and POA fees at $703,313.50.
Short-term rental permit
By a 3-2 margin, a divided board approved a short-term rental Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for Stephen J. Aron Jr. despite some objections from neighbors in the gated River Ridge Property Owners Association. Tony Carter and Archie Fox cast the two dissenting votes.
Carter cited neighbor concerns about security issues tied to the applicant’s efforts to recoup some of his residential property improvement costs in purchasing what he said at the earlier public hearing was the run-down home of what he described as the less than conscientious previous occupants. In explaining her vote for the CUP, Delores Oates noted that renters wouldn’t be given the code to the gate, but would utilize a locked key box key to activate entry to the gated community.
Carter replied that, that solution still allowed entry and access of strangers to a community that many residents may have located to for the additional security provided by locked access available only to residents and their guests.
During the January public hearing it was noted in favor of the request that many short-term rental operations do quite a bit of vetting of guests. The applicant indicated he intended to be conscientious about those allowed to stay at the residence he and his family plan to spend a great deal of time at themselves.
In addition to the EDA, other operational updates the county received were from VDOT, RSW Jail, the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, Department of Social Services and the Town of Front Royal.
See a related story on the Town report; and see the full Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting – other than the 3-hour-plus closed session – in this Royal Examiner video:
Economic development proceeds amidst legal and Spotted Lanternfly threats
This reporter sat down with Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Vice-Chairman Jeff Browne and Executive Director Doug Parsons on Friday, January 31, to discuss the work they do amidst challenges they face in the aftermath of the financial scandal that developed during the executive leadership of Jennifer McDonald and a previous EDA board majority.
In what we hope is the first of at least monthly video interviews on EDA business and affairs, listen as Browne and Parsons describe how their time is budgeted as they continue the EDA’s work of business retention and recruitment in an environment of dueling civil litigations. They continue to offer an olive branch to the Front Royal Town Council to work together in good faith to determine exactly what the EDA owes the Town in allegedly misdirected EDA assets generated by Town taxpayers, as opposed to an increasingly expensive attorney-driven civil suit filed by the Town against its existing co-created EDA.
It is litigation, as is pointed out in the interview, in which town taxpayers face the unhappy task of funding both sides, as Town taxpayers for the plaintiff and as County taxpayers for the defendant.
And speaking of olive branches, Browne and Parsons conclude the interview by describing the economic threat presented by the expanding presence of the fruit-tree and grapevine feeding Spotted Lanternfly in Frederick County to our north; and how Warren County citizens and businesses can be on the alert to spot, report and mitigate early signs of the destructive bug’s presence in our county.
Watch the discussion in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Judge denies EDA civil suit defendants’ motions for removal from case
In a written ruling signed January 24 and filed in the Warren County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office on January 27, Judge Bruce D. Albertson denied a host of EDA civil litigation defense motions for removal from the case as alleged co-conspirators with central defendant, former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.
Among defendant attorneys involved in the December 12 motions hearing were those representing April Petty, Jesse Poe, Donald Poe and his Earth Right Energy (ERE) solar panel installation company, and ITFederal and its principal Truc “Curt” Tran.
The basis of those defense counsel arguments for dismissal of their clients from the civil case primarily revolved around the plaintiff’s notion of an overarching conspiracy that somehow links the various defendants to central figure and former EDA Executive Director McDonald; and that there are legally definable contractual breaches making those defendants individually liable for funds that came their way through McDonald.
At the December motions hearing christened “Groundhog Day” by one media rep present (guilty as charged) for the bulk of four-and-a-half-hours of repetitive legal arguments put forth by each defense attorney on essentially identical claims for removal of their clients from the civil case, lead plaintiff attorney Cullen Seltzer’s counter was briefer.
That was because Seltzer’s reply was essentially a one-response-fits-all argument. That response was that there did not have to have to be direct knowledge among all defendants of each interlocking conspiracy McDonald is alleged to having been a party to, for that conspiracy to exist to the benefit of separate defendants in separate transactions. Seltzer scoffed at the idea of McDonald as “a rogue tornado” distributing EDA assets to various defendants without a general common knowledge that something illegal was transpiring to each defendant’s benefit.
“I deny each Demurrer and Plea in Bar for the reasons cited by the plaintiff,” Judge Albertson wrote in his brief, three paragraph ruling.
However, the judge also ruled that a plaintiff claim of “Breach of Fiduciary Duty” against all defendants, cited only McDonald and her former Administrative Assistant Michelle Henry for such action.
“Plaintiff alleges that this count applies to all defendants due to the conspiracy count. The manner in which this count is written, however, names only Ms. Henry and Ms. McDonald as parties that have breached this duty. I find that his count does not apply to the other defendants as written in the Amended Complaint,” the judge ruled.
The judge also continued a decision on Earth Right Energy’s “Plea in Bar and separate Motion for Sanctions” based on other arguments heard December 12. There was disagreement between ERE attorney Ryan Huttar and EDA counsel on the validity of contracts between the EDA and ERE in amounts over $10,000, which is most, if not all involved contracts.
EDA counsel noted that any EDA transaction or contract over $10,000 had to be approved by the EDA Board of Directors, which EDA counsel stated did not happen in the Earth Right Energy cases. However, Earth Right attorney Huttar contended the company’s contracts, including a $27-million one with the Warren County Public School system negotiated while Greg Drescher was both an EDA board member and superintendent of schools, were legally binding.
It appears a decision on those arguments will require additional factual information to be brought to the court.