As the final weeks of the summer of 2019 arrive in the northwestern Shenandoah Valley, one small-town, rural community remains conflicted, perhaps even collectively traumatized by a financial scandal that has carried the names Front Royal and Warren County across Virginia and occasionally beyond into major media markets across the country.
In September, less than six months after civil litigation was filed seeking recovery of millions of dollars of allegedly misdirected economic development assets there have been:
– forty-one criminal indictments served against five defendants related to alleged financial fraud within the local Economic Development Authority;
– four surviving EDA civil defendants and their companies have been sued for the return of up to $21 million dollars of those economic development assets;
– a long-time, generally well-thought-of sheriff is dead, possibly on the eve of himself being criminally indicted after being named one of the EDA civil suit defendants;
– the Town of Front Royal has filed a civil suit against the EDA and its former executive director that has climbed from an initial $3 million figure to as much as $15 million;
– a Special Grand Jury looking into potential criminality surrounding all of this has asked for a six-month extension to March 31, 2020, to continue its work begun in early April.
We must remember that everyone who has been charged civilly and/or criminally will have their day in court with an opportunity to give their side of the story and claim misunderstanding or innocence. But human nature being what it is, fingers have been pointed – sometimes rationally, sometimes not – and an ongoing, collective query remains on the lips of a community – whoever and however, how and why did it happen?
“We’re here tonight because there was a catastrophic failure that allowed criminal embezzlement and rampant mismanagement to flourish,” recently-elected EDA Board of Directors Vice-Chairman Jeff Browne said on behalf of the EDA to open the August 27 joint meeting of County, Town and EDA boards and staffs.
That is the short answer.
“None of us ever want to see that happen again. The failures can be grouped into two categories … failed procedures and failed oversight,” Browne added of the outline for a path forward.
What led to those catastrophic failures of people and processes will take a bit longer to unravel.
While ultimate legal responsibility will be the province of the civil and criminal court systems, likely even at the federal level on the criminal side, there can be little doubt that large amounts of money designated for public use related to economic development in Front Royal and Warren County were moved haphazardly with little, if any consideration to due diligence.
One can only wonder where the pertinent question that might have prevented it all was from a total of 19 elected and appointed board members from the Town, County and EDA over the past five-plus years. It wasn’t a difficult question – “Is what I’ve been told to justify a large investment of public funding, let’s say $10 million, verifiably true?”
Oh, that’s right – that question WAS asked three years ago.
However when first posed in mid-2016 by a lone municipal voice, Town Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger, as well as the Royal Examiner news staff, it was initially ignored and/or vilified by every other involved public official.
The vilification was that “negative press” was threatening the successful conduct of EDA business, particularly ITFederal business. It is a business now asserted in court filings as having fraudulently received the largest single chunk, $10 million, of EDA assets being sought for recovery in the EDA civil litigation.
But three years ago then Councilman Bret Hrbek, a recent if unsuccessful applicant for a seat on the EDA board of directors, seemed to speak for a distinct town council majority of five and the mayor when he suggested that the question about the truth of what was being presented to this community about ITFederal was counterproductive.
Because that “negative press” being generated by Bébhinn Egger and Royal Examiner about the ability of Truc “Curt” Tran and his ITFederal LLC to live up to the promised $40 million investment creating 600 high-paying tech industry jobs in this community had led the ITFed CEO to consider taking his ball and going home – or rather to take his LLC trumpeted as the first commercial redevelopment client at the Avtex Brownfield site, and go elsewhere.
But would that have been such a tragedy – particularly before the Town offered its initial one-month, twice-extended $10-million “bridge loan” that enabled the EDA to finalize its $10-million
loan to ITFederal through First Bank & Trust?
According to documentation in the Cherry Bekaert EDA financial fraud investigation, Tran listed ITFederal assets of $2,020,000 as collateral for the $10-million bank loan facilitated through the EDA. But $2,000,000 of that amount was the value of the 30-acre property at the Avtex site/Royal Phoenix Business Park which the EDA “gifted” behind closed doors to Tran for $1 – yes, one dollar American – after public discussion of a $2-million dollar sale price.
Royal Examiner thought so in its first month of existence when it broke the news of that one-dollar, 30-acre gift to ITFederal leading to a year’s delay in approving the transaction by federal oversight authorities.
As noted in the linked October 27, 2016, Royal Examiner story, approval from the U.S. Justice Department to remove the ITFederal parcel from a bankruptcy court-ordered $2.06 million lien on the Royal Phoenix/Avtex property came on September 23, 2016. That was just over a year after the request to allow the one-dollar sale was sent out by then EDA/County Attorney Blair Mitchell on September 18, 2015. The stated rationale was that facilitating the ITFederal project with a give-away of land valued at $67,000 an acre would jump start other full-price purchases at the site.
“This 30 acres has been sold for $1.00 in order to get a developer to come in and begin the process of other buyers,” Mitchell wrote, adding, “The EDA already has a buyer for a 3-acre parcel to sell at $67,000 per acre, so selling this parcel as a way of breaking the ice will pay off in the long run. While the $1 will not be used to pay down the $2,060,000 lien, sales proceeds from future sales will be applied toward the paydown of the secured debt.”
Three years later we see how that plan worked out:
1/ no three-acre sale to CBM Mortgage at Royal Phoenix;
2/ no other land sales at Royal Phoenix;
3/ no $40 million investment or any jobs created by ITFed at the Royal Phoenix site.
In fact per the ongoing sweetheart agreements he was dealt by the EDA, it appears Tran may invest about $2 million to create an unoccupied 10,000 s.f. building at his “get the redevelopment ball rolling” gifted acreage with no further obligations other than that he have a certificate of occupancy issued by the middle of 2020 and continue to make monthly payments for the balance of 30 years on that $10 million bank loan through the EDA.
And the Cherry Bekaert investigation verifies what Royal Examiner and Bébhinn Egger were saying at the time – that there was no evidence the $140-million dollar federal government contract ballyhooed by Tran, his D.C. political sponsor Robert Goodlatte and EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald as the basis for ITFederal’s investment here ever existed.
How did it happen – not just the ITFederal and Workforce Housing debacles that first attracted this media outlet and Councilwoman Egger’s attention – but all of it, the 16 specific project allegations cited in the Cherry Bekaert working papers report and summary?
Those projects in order of their listing in the Cherry Bekaert summary are: Workforce Housing Project/Royal Lane Property; Afton Inn Property Improvements; Criminal Justice Training Academy; Bargain Land Sale and Issuance of $10,000,000 Loan to ITFederal; Payments to or on Behalf of ITFederal; Payments to Earth Right Energy; New Market Tax Credit Projects; Leach Run Parkway Easements; Wetland Credits; New Hope Bible Church; 999 Shenandoah Shores Road; Payments to (McDonald) Relatives; USDA Intermediary Relending Program; Stokes Mart/B&G Goods; Payments to Known and Suspected (McDonald) Business Partners; USDA Rural Business Enterprise Loans.
How could personal and procedural checks and balances collapse so catastrophically for such a length of time, in so many directions?
“I had no reason not to trust her,”
“I had no reason not to trust her,” is a comment offered by more than one EDA or municipal official in explanation of the lack of due diligence performed on project proposals and financing or the purchase and sale of properties through the EDA on the word of its former executive director.
Perhaps it is that personal comfort and familiarity – “I had no reason not to trust her” – born of long-time social, professional and organizational ties that gives us a clue at a root cause of that “catastrophic failure” of procedures and oversight cited at this story’s outset.
It is a familiarity born of business and legal transactions, organizational memberships, not to mention in many cases political party affiliations. In Warren County those political affiliations are almost exclusively on the Republican side of the political aisle, from local to state and federal levels. And that is not to point a finger at one party or the other, but rather just to acknowledge the local political landscape.
Were there to be only Democrats in electoral and judicial office here, the situation would be the same – “I know you; we have common interest and cause, why would I not trust you?”
It is such personal or professional familiarity that has forced the eventual recusal of all the county’s circuit court judges from hearing EDA legal matters at an evidentiary level. Chief 26th Judicial District Judge Bruce D. Albertson, now hearing EDA civil and criminal cases in place of Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr., has indicated he will soon appoint another judge from outside the county to take over the EDA Special Grand Jury bench as Athey heads to the Virginia State Appeals Court.
It is that small town “everyone knows everyone” personally, organizationally, professionally and politically that can contribute to that apathy toward fundamental organizational due diligence, if not worse.
Why would anyone in local elected or appointed office here not trust then-U.S. Sixth District of Virginia Republican Congressman Robert Goodlatte’s 2014-15 assertion that ITFederal would invest $40 million dollars and create 600-plus high-paying jobs here based on a $140-million federal government contract there was no evidence existed?
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.
Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Meeting – January 24, 2019
The Economic Development Authority held their monthly Board of Directors meeting on January 24, 2020.
One of the topics was the sale of the Stokes Market (most recent the Main Street Market) to William Huck, owner of C&C Frozen Treats on Main Street in Front Royal. Huck has been trying to remodel the property he owns adjacent to C&C but because of costs higher than anticipated and issues with zoning and permitting, he has been exploring other options to open his newest business known as My Lagniappe – it’s a Louisiana expression that means ‘An extra or unexpected gift or benefit, such as that given to customers when they purchase something.’ If you know Huck, you know he always offers his customers a little lagniappe.
The solar panels on the roof of the EDA office building was also a point of discussions. The EDA is advertising for any party interested in purchasing the solar electric system currently stationed on top of the EDA Building at 400 Kendrick Lane, Front Royal.
The RSW Jail has said they are not interested in the solar panels. The cost of installation and unknown purchase price makes the project not cost effective.
Discussion also included workforce housing, the 2018 audit, Afton Inn renovations and the big one, running out of money by March.
Watch the EDA Board at work in this exclusive Royal Examiner video: