FRONT ROYAL – At a specially-called Friday morning, February 8 meeting the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors again resolved to pay back funds forwarded by the county government to cover invoice billings from the confidential accounting consultant contracted to oversee this year’s audit process.
The $60,000 approved for transfer to the EDA by the Warren County Board of Supervisors on February 5 is the second such transfer. The first made on December 21, was for $90,000 for what is believed to have been an invoice for three months of completed work. The audit began in mid-September.
The Friday-morning motion to accept and utilize the most recent allotment from the County to pay the consultant’s latest invoice was made by Mark Baker and approved by a 6-0 vote, Ron Llewellyn absent.
The motion included a promise “to make every effort possible” to pay the money back as soon as the finances were in place to do so. Most EDA assets outside its operating budget or loans for specific capital improvement projects are tied up in real estate, as opposed to readily available cash. A similar intent-to-pay-back resolution was made upon acceptance of the first $90,000 forwarded to the EDA by the county supervisors to meet the consultant’s earlier invoice.
As reported upon the board of supervisor’s authorization of moving the $60,000 to EDA control on February 5, coupled with raising the allotment for audit-related legal services from the Richmond law firm of Sands-Anderson from $50,000 to “up to $100,000”, the county government has spent or authorized expenditure of a quarter million dollars ($250,000) in addition to the base auditor’s fee of $17,500 on this year’s EDA audit.
Financial alarm bells were raised when the Town of Front Royal notified then EDA Board Chairman Greg Drescher, former Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and EDA/County Attorney Dan Whitten on August 23, 2018, that its finance director had uncovered an eight-year history of Town bond issue over-payments to the EDA totaling over $291,000.
Friday’s closed session of 48 minutes was limited to matters requiring legal advice regarding discussion of “EDA loan programs and accounting services.” EDA Board Chairman Gray Blanton read the same statement explaining the closed session exclusion of all but EDA board, certain staff and auditing participants as he did on January 30.
That statement indicated the board would be hearing information from its consultant providing “a direction of how we will need to proceed as a Board as we work toward better understanding the actions of our former Director in operating the Authority” and that at this point the EDA board felt it best that it and designated staff – counsel and interim executive director – alone would be receiving that information.
Consequently, Front Royal Mayor Hollis Tharpe and Town Manager Joe Waltz, present without offering input or being asked any questions Friday, were ushered out of the meeting room with the media prior to the 8:20 a.m. start of the closed session. Both soon left the premise.
Discussion following the closed session indicated a belief the audit could be completed by February 19, leading to another special EDA board meeting being called to accept the auditor’s report. Some urgency was expressed in completing the audit process so that the county government can include the EDA report in preparing its own audit as the coming fiscal year budget process progresses.
In a related matter, a press release from the county administrator’s office issued shortly after 10 a.m. Friday morning (Feb. 8) announced the hiring of Winchester-based attorney Robert T. Mitchell to represent the County in EDA-related matters where Dan Whitten, the county attorney who also serves as EDA attorney, could have a conflict of interest regarding information revealed by the audit.
Stanley’s statement on Mitchell’s hiring states, ”We have retained Mr. Mitchell’s services to provide legal counsel to represent the Board of Supervisors on the accounting and debt service issues regarding the EDA. Mr. Mitchell has decades of experience in local government law including representing Clarke County and we value his knowledge and experience. Time will tell how much his services will be needed on this matter.”
With a possible completion date for the now quarter-million-dollar EDA audit cited just 12 days away it would seem that “time” to realize how much Mitchell’s services might be required by the County, will be soon at hand.
Perhaps ironically, though dated February 7 the press release from County Administrator Doug Stanley’s office announcing Mitchell’s retention was distributed just 26 minutes (10:16 a.m.) after Royal Examiner Editor Norma Jean Shaw sent an email (9:50 a.m.) to EDA board members, Whitten and Stanley Friday morning questioning potential attorney conflicts of interest for Whitten in the audit process.
Shaw previously questioned Whitten on the potential of such a legal dilemma in his dual County-EDA attorneys’ roles in a January 9 e-mail.
The Royal Examiner’s camera was there to capture the special meeting:
Little civil consequence of more criminal prosecution delays in EDA case
Contacted about the new dates in late 2022 of trials in the now federal prosecutor-handled criminal indictments against former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) Executive Director Jennifer McDonald, current EDA Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne said while it has little, if any, impact on the EDA’s civil litigation seeking recovery of assets, he understands public frustration from continued delays on the criminal side of the EDA financial scandal.
“I don’t believe the delay in the criminal case impacts our civil case. We have no control over the criminal case, but it is frustrating that Warren County residents must wait so long for justice to be served. I understand the reasons for the delay, but it still is frustrating,” Browne told Royal Examiner.
The reason for the delay continues to be, as it has been from the outset for the most part, the volume of evidentiary documentation in the case, as well as the introduction of new attorneys into the legal equation who must absorb the information in that documentation estimated at well over a million pages.
Most recently, federal Judge Elizabeth Dillon granted McDonald’s newest attorney, court-appointed Andrea Harris’s request for a continuance of McDonald’s criminal trials slated for the first week of this month. The federal prosecutor from the Western District of Virginia did not object to the continuance. Consequently, new trial dates between October 11 and November 18, 2022, are now on federal docket. Since the delay came at the request of the defense, speedy trial guidelines will not come into play.
As Royal Examiner previously reported, on August 31 McDonald was re-arrested on a 34-count indictment handed down by the Western District of Virginia Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Harrisonburg.
Of those 34 counts, 16 were for money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” – our best guess representing ITFederal principal Truc “Curt” Tran. The 40-paragraph True Bill elaborating on the charges to a Harrisonburg Grand Jury is dated August 25, and signed by then-Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel P. Bubar. McDonald was once again released on bond.
The charges and outline of the case in support of them echo earlier criminal indictments filed at the state level before the State Special Prosecutor’s Office in Harrisonburg turned the case over to federal authorities in late 2019. The state special prosecutor had dropped the indictments it had filed to avoid speedy trial issues due to the volume of evidentiary material – estimated at 800,000 to over a million pages at the time. Failure to meet speedy trial deadlines could have led to defense motions for dismissal of charges on the criminal side of the EDA financial scandal case.
EDA emerges from lengthy Closed Session to consider assistance to Angel Tree Program and C-CAP winter food storage
(Editor’s note: The Salvation Army notified Royal Examiner that their holiday toy collection/distribution program is known as Angel Tree, as opposed to the Marine Corps Toys for Tots effort. We in turn notified the EDA Board Chairman and received permission to make the correction to this press release.)
The EDA Board of Directors met today for their regular monthly meeting. All board members were present along with legal counsel. The Board went into closed session for approximately two and half hours to discuss transition, personnel, loan restructure, and disposition of property. The Board returned to open session at approximately 11:30.
The Board discussed the transition and how the county and the EDA were working well together. Taryn Logan, Assistant County Administrator, is also the Interim EDA Executive Director working on new prospects and marketing of EDA property. Ed Daley, County Administrator will work with the EDA on current projects. The County and EDA are actively recruiting a new Executive Director and administrative assistant. Jeff Browne thanked board members for stepping up to keep the EDA operation running smoothly.
Jeff Browne discussed the use of a portion the EDA administrative building through December 22nd for the Salvation Army Angel Tree holiday toy collection and distribution campaign. The EDA will also assist C-CAP in finding proper storage for needed food through the winter.
Jeff Browne and Scott Jenkins discussed the use of interns beginning in January to assist with EDA research and future projects. Scott Jenkins reviewed the “job description”. Taryn Logan stated the use of interns by the county has been a very successful venture in the past. Ed Daley, County Administrator, also supported the proposed program.
Marjorie Martin (Jorie) will assume the duties to update the website working with Queen Consulting. Meeting dates, and updated site information will posted.
The Board is working with vendors to clean the air conditioning ducts in the EDA administration building.
Next EDA Board Meeting: Combined meeting for November and December, December 3, 2021: The meeting will be held via zoom at 9:00 AM
County Supervisors change November meeting date – stay mum on Closed Session EDA litigation discussion
The only open session action taking by the Warren County Board of Supervisors at a Special Meeting of Tuesday, October 26, was authorization to change the date of a November Supervisors meeting from the 16th to the 18th. That item was a late addition to the agenda made and acted on prior to a scheduled closed session.
The bulk of the 5 p.m. meeting, about an hour-and-a-quarter, was taken up by a Closed/Executive Session to discuss Economic Development Authority litigation. As Royal Examiner readers know, that is an oft-behind closed doors topic over the last two-plus years in the wake of the $26-million to $62 million FR-WC EDA financial scandal that began unravelling in mid-2018. No announcement or action regarding that litigation was offered during the brief open session to adjournment shortly after 6:20 p.m.
As has been previously reported, the EDA financial scandal involves civil and criminal cases, the latter now handled at the federal level by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Virginia headquartered in Harrisonburg. Before criminal indictments were dropped by the Special Prosecutor at the state level due to speedy trial concerns surrounding the mountain of documented evidence, estimated at over a million pages, there were as many as 23 co-defendants alleged as co-conspirators of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald. The federal prosecutor launched action on August 31, filing a 34-count indictment against McDonald, including 16 counts of money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” (ITFederal principal Truc Tran perhaps?)
In related civil litigation, McDonald and the EDA reached an agreement in which $9-million-dollars of assets were ruled out of McDonald’s bankruptcy court filing as owed to the EDA, though without any admission of fault by McDonald. As part of that agreement the EDA recently announced assumption of ownership of McDonald Real Estate LLC MoveOn8’s undeveloped 41-acre Happy Creek parcel valued at over a million dollars.
The EDA and Town of Front Royal are also engaged in dueling civil countersuits initiated by the Town, claiming disputed lost assets related to the financial scandal. During the tenure of Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick, other than then-Mayor Eugene Tewalt, the town council chose to ignore EDA offers to sit down in a non-litigious, good faith effort to determine exactly what was owed to the Town related to the alleged misdirected EDA assets involved in Town and County capital improvement and economic development projects financed through the EDA. The Town has since initiated an effort to create its own unilateral Front Royal EDA (FREDA) operating independently of the over half-century-old Town-County EDA, which technically the Town is still a legal, if now silent, partner in.
That independent EDA effort has become a political hot potato in the coming Town Special Election to fill resigned member Jacob Meza’s seat. In recent years the County had fully funded EDA operational costs, with each municipality covering its own debt service related to EDA financing of projects. Independent conservative council candidate Bruce Rappaport has made the unilateral Front Royal EDA a major target of his campaign, citing it as a waste of town taxpayer money and destructive wrench in the cog of Town-County relations.
‘Ghosts of EDA Loans Past’ come back to haunt county supervisors
The most interesting part of Tuesday evening’s Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting was likely behind closed doors after the board adjourned to Closed/Executive Session for a legal-based answer to North River Supervisor Delores Oates question as to what benefit to the County and its taxpayers there was in approval of a Resolution admitting a “moral obligation” to continue to pay the debt service on bank loans made by the EDA during its developing financial scandal, circa 2016 or so. There was one of three loans at issue of particular interest – the $10-million-dollar loan to Truc “Curt” Tran’s ITFederal company poised to jumpstart commercial redevelopment at the 149-acre portion of the former Avtex Superfund site known as the Royal Phoenix Business Park.
Of particular interest, because the “moral obligation” for that loan was initially believed covered by the Town of Front Royal, whose elected officials agreed to provide a $10-million-dollar “bridge loan” requested by then EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald to indicate to First Bank and Trust that “the community” stood behind the loan and proposed project it supported. That request for and Town show of financial support for the ITFed project came despite the fact the company showed virtually no assets other than the three acres at the Royal Phoenix/Avtex site valued at slightly over $2-million-dollars that was “gifted” to the company by the EDA behind closed doors for one dollar.
A clue to what the county supervisors heard over about 15 minutes in Closed Session may have been offered by the board’s action out of it. After some hesitancy in response to the Chair’s call for a motion on the Resolution, Oates’ motion for approval of the “EDA First Bank and Trust Support Agreement”, seconded by Walt Mabe, passed by a unanimous roll call vote. The vote commits the County to continue to absorb those “moral obligation” payments through the Fiscal Year 2021-22 at an estimated cost of $214,000.
In open session, responding to questions about the Resolution in support of the “EDA First Bank and Trust Support Agreement”, County Administrator Ed Daley mentioned consolidation of three loans, including the above-mentioned ITFederal loan (at $9,551,500), as well as a First Bank and Trust Line of Credit ($8,691,600), and a First Bank of Strasburg loan ($3,450,000). Contacted later, Daley cited one condition that would bring the EDA’s payments to the bank on the ITFederal loan in line with what ITFederal pays the EDA monthly at about $42,000. Before the EDA payments fluctuated to more or less than the ITFed payments, sometimes as much as $7,000 a month more.
Despite the commitment to an estimated $214,000 in payments through this fiscal year, the board’s unanimous vote in support of its moral obligation payments likely reflects negative consequences were the County to bail on covering an EDA debt mid-fiscal year. But again, the agreement is only to the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, 2022. What might the future of “moral obligations” related to the “Ghost of EDA Loans Past” bring in FY-2022-23? – Stay tuned for another seasonal episode of “A Front Royal-Warren County EDA Carol”.
Thermal Shelter bathrooms
County Administrator Daley was also prominent in responding to another matter raised by three speakers during Public Comments about things, not on the meeting agenda. That was the elimination of two bathrooms in the Health and Human Services Complex at the old 15th Street middle school utilized by the County and involved churches and civic organizations to house the community’s homeless indoors at night during the winter. Opening that discussion was First Baptist Church Pastor Christy McMillin-Goodwin, followed by Aneita Bryant and Jim Bunce.
That trio said an alternate plan for mobile outdoor restrooms was unadvisable due to security and additional personnel to monitor out-of-building night trips, as well as potential severe weather issues. Noting a replacement plan that would not have new indoor facilities in place in time for this winter’s thermal shelter setup, these speakers wondered how the removal plan had been initiated without notice to those involved in helping the County operate the thermal shelter. Bryant suggested allowing access to the next closest indoor facilities.
In responding, Daley said he had been at point for the County in initiating the bathroom removal due to failing pipes that caused toilet backup issues. He said he had envisioned a much quicker turnaround in replacing the removed indoor facilities in that section of the building than ended up being the case. He promised to work proactively with those involved to see that an adequate alternate overnight option was available when the thermal shelter opens as winter arrives.
Also Tuesday following public hearings, the board unanimously approved three Conditional Use Permit applications, two for short-term tourist rentals and one for a private use campground. Following application summaries by Planning Department Deputy Director Matt Wendling the first two CUP applications, Charles and Lou Ann Dotson’s for the Private Use Campground on their property on Burma Road in the Man-Da-Lay Subdivision; and Jacob W. Lott Jr. and Sandra J. Kiepfer for a short-term tourist rental on their 1.6-acre lot on Little Indian Road in the Blue Mountain Subdivision in Linden went to a vote with no public hearing speakers. Wendling did note that a letter from the chairman of the Blue Mountain Property Owners Association had been received, expressing “no problem” with Lott and Kiepfer’s short-term tourist rental application.
Up last were Nicole and Sean McMinn with a short-term tourist rental permit application for their 2.42-acre property on Sagar Drive in the Highland Estates Subdivision in the Fork District. Again, there were no public speakers after the applicants responded to the board chair’s offer to summarize their request. The D.C.-based couple told the board they had run into little opposition from neighbors, and what opposition there had been from neighbors was not from those closest, but with property over a thousand feet from theirs.
And while there were no public speakers, the McMinns noted a number of letters to the board from supporters of their short-term tourist rental CUP application, which they asked to be read into the meeting record. Board Clerk Emily Ciarrocchi then read nine letters of support, including one with “25 to 30” signatures. Several of the letters, including one from the owner of the Downriver Canoe Company, noted positive impacts on tourism-related businesses from short-term renters. One letter noted, “They come; they spend; they leave”.
The board then made its final unanimous vote of approval on a motion by Archie Fox in whose district the applicant’s property lies, seconded by Walt Mabe.
Following that vote, Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter noted a “Bless you” included in one of the letters read by the clerk that was well-timed to a sneeze by someone present in the government center meeting room.
In fact, facing a future out of the public eye politically – Carter did not file to be on the ballot for reelection to his Happy Creek seat in November – Carter appeared at times Tuesday to be auditioning for Comedy Club spots during his member report and at various other times during the meeting. In fact, his coming local election, Halloween costume advice during his member report led three of his four colleagues to decline to try and “follow that act”.
See all the fun, business, and other public perspectives, including opening Public Comments speaker Michael Williams question as to whether a recent church-sponsored candidates forum in which the moderator was shown prior to the forum to have contributed to one church-associated candidate’s campaign could threaten that church’s tax-exempt status on U.S. Constitutional separation of church and state guidelines, in the County video:
EDA gets McDonald company property as part of settlement agreement
On Wednesday, October 20, Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne verified the EDA’s acquisition of the 41-acre “Happy Creek Road” parcel owned by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s Moveon8 real estate LLC. Acquisition of the undeveloped property assessed at just over a million dollars according to county court records is part of the $9-million-dollar no-fault settlement agreement reached between the EDA, McDonald, and the Harrisonburg Bankruptcy Court handling McDonald’s 2020 bankruptcy filing. The EDA will now be able to market the property as a developable EDA asset. It is located near the intersection of Happy Creek Road and Leach Run Parkway.
Browne said that in addition to receiving full value on the Happy Creek parcel, the EDA was in line to receive a percentage of the sale price of other McDonald assets distributed through the bankruptcy court proceeding. Exactly how close those percentages might get the EDA to the $9-million-dollar settlement figure remains to be seen. It was not immediately clear as to whether the EDA will have an outright full value claim to any other McDonald-held properties or assets.
McDonald is the central figure in the EDA financial scandal that began unravelling in mid-to-late 2018. She resigned in December 2018 under mounting pressure from her board of directors. She has been accused in civil and criminal court of utilizing her EDA position to misdirect EDA assets to her and others personal benefit. Western District of Virginia federal authorities have taken over the criminal side of the EDA case after a state special prosecutor’s office in Harrisonburg dropped criminal charges against McDonald and as many as 23 co-defendants due to speedy trial concerns as it wrestled with the volume of evidentiary material – estimated at 800,000 to over a million pages at the time. With charges against some defendants originating with the county commonwealth attorney’s office that initially handled the criminal investigation during Brian Madden’s tenure heading the department, failure to meet speedy trial timelines could have led to defense motions for dismissal of criminal charges against the defendants.
On August 31, 2021, federal prosecutors made their initial move, handing down a 34-count indictment against McDonald. Of those 34 counts, 16 were for money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” – ITFederal principal Truc Tran perhaps?
EDA completes audits for 2018 and 2019; 2020 audit is next
The Board of Directors of the Front Royal and Warren County Economic Development Authority accepted its audited financial statements for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, today, October 5, 2021. The audit of the financial statements was conducted by the firm of Brown Edwards, CPAs of Harrisonburg, VA.
“We have received the final outside audits conducted for 2018 and 2019,” said EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne. “This was a huge effort on the part of Brown Edwards, and they have done very good work in challenging circumstances. Getting these two financial audits completed is a major step forward in putting the EDA’s past difficulties behind us. Now we can better focus on economic development issues to benefit the community.”
“The auditors’ letter points to three areas for improvement of internal controls,” Browne said. “It was important to make each improvement recommended by the CPAs, and we have done just that. The Warren County staff now administer the check-writing duties, collection of rents, and have layers of approvals for expenses within EDA and the County administration that were not there three years ago.”
The audited financial statements show that, at the end of the fiscal year 2019, the EDA’s total net assets were $38,036,737, and its net liabilities were $44,575,435, resulting in a deficit net position of $6,538,698. The EDA will work with Warren County’s auditors starting with the fiscal year 2020, which audit can now be undertaken.
The EDA Board of Directors will have their next regular monthly board meeting via Zoom on Friday, October 29, 2021, at 9 a.m.