FRONT ROYAL – Legal arguments on the substance of the civil defamation lawsuit brought by local attorney and Shenandoah District Supervisor Tom Sayre against Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Jennifer McDonald will be heard in Warren County General District Court the afternoon of December 19.
However, Judge W. Dale Houff, who dismissed the criminal misdemeanor filing of a false police report case against McDonald in that courtroom on October 31, will not preside over that hearing or trial, if the court rules on December 19 that there are grounds for the civil case to proceed. During a November 16 hearing, Sayre attorney Timothy Bosson requested Judge Houff be replaced due to potential conflicts of interest.
Houff agreed and signed an “Order of Disqualification” recusing himself from the Sayre-McDonald civil case because “the plaintiff is a local attorney that regularly appears before this court.” Consequently, Winchester General District Court Judge Ian Williams is slated to preside at the December 19 hearing in the civil case at 2:30 p.m.
In the wake of McDonald’s criminal case acquittal, her attorney Lee Berlik has said he will move to have Sayre’s $25,000 civil defamation case dismissed. It is also anticipated he will ask the court to hold Sayre responsible for his client’s legal fees. And listed among the top-four defamation attorneys in the D.C. Metro Area those fees might not be cheap. It is also likely McDonald would file a counter-defamation civil action against Sayre were his civil case to be dismissed or if she were to prevail in a civil trial.
However, Sayre attorney Bosson asserts he has evidence not introduced during the Halloween Day prosecution of McDonald in the false police report case. He also notes that the standard for conviction in civil and criminal matters differs. While in criminal court the prosecution case must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt”, in civil court the standard of proof is that alleged behavior was “more likely than not” to have occurred.
On Friday afternoon, September 21, Sayre filed a $25,000 defamation lawsuit against McDonald. Sayre’s suit revolves around the reported stone-throwing vandalism at her home that McDonald reported at 9:02 p.m. on Thursday, June 15, 2017. Sayre contends that a note found at the scene following the vandalism that contained his phone number and the notation “do not call Tom at work” was planted by the EDA executive director as a means of implicating him in what he believes to be a “faux” or false crime set up by McDonald herself.
During the October 31 false police report trial it was revealed that in addition to Sayre’s phone number, the phone number of former Town Manager Michael Graham was also on the note found at the scene of the vandalism. The note described as “a
piece of trash” near her front door was pointed out to sheriff’s office investigators at the vandalism scene by McDonald. It contained instructions about planned incidents at McDonald’s property designed to scare her, as well as a reference that “Norma Jean” was awaiting “files” related to an incident believed to be the EDA office break-in; as well as instructions “Do not take this sheet with you …” and “Do not call Tom during business hours …”
Norma Jean Shaw is editor of the Royal Examiner.
‘Fabricated’ evidence – but by whom?
And while Judge Houff granted McDonald attorney David Crump’s motion to dismiss the criminal case against his client before even presenting a defense case, news reports of the trial quoted the judge commenting that it was “fairly clear” that the note alleged to have been dropped by a suspected perpetrator at the McDonald property was likely “fabricated” and that “something is made up and is horribly wrong with this.”
Shaw, Sayre and Graham all testified during the McDonald misdemeanor trial that they had no knowledge of the note with their name and/or numbers attached to it and had nothing to do with any incidents targeting McDonald’s home or the EDA headquarters.
The Front Royal Police have placed the EDA office break-in in the department’s “inactive” or “leads exhausted” file. However, FRPD Investigator Landin Waller told Royal Examiner that as a felony breaking and entering case there is no statute of limitations on reopening the case were additional evidence to come forth.
In fact as was reported last year, on June 17, 2017 about two months after the EDA office break-in and one month after the McDonald property vandalism, in a letter signed by then-Board Chairman Greg Drescher the EDA Board of Directors “formally” requested that the town police place their investigation on “inactive status”.
Drescher wrote that the EDA had hired a private investigator “to handle the investigation” though it was later elaborated that McDonald had actually hired the PI, Ken Pullen. The FRPD case file indicates that Pullen later communicated to law enforcement that he believed the EDA office and McDonald home property incidents were related. The McDonald property incidents were investigated by the Warren County Sheriff’s Office.
In the FRPD case file acquired by Royal Examiner via a Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the town police also noted there was a concern both departmentally and among EDA officials about keeping the names of several public officials cited by McDonald in a police interview as potential suspects in the EDA break-in out of the public eye as the investigation proceeded.
According to the case file McDonald was asked by town police Investigator Waller if she “could think of anyone that might be mad enough to do something like this” regarding the EDA break-in during which a photo of McDonald was pinned to her meeting room chair by a knife and several other photos were left behind with scratch marks on her face.
“She informed me that there is a group of people who have made derogatory statements about the Work-Force Housing Project in the Royal Examiner …She listed Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger, Mike Graham, Stan Brooks, Shae Parker, Tom Conkey, Roger Bianchini and Norma Jean Shaw as persons she felt were angry with her,” the police summary of the interview states.
In the loop and under the bus?
Egger, Brooks, Parker and Conkey are all former Front Royal town councilmen, Brooks has also been mayor, and as stated above Graham is a former town manager. Bianchini and Shaw are Royal Examiner’s editorial staff. While Shaw and McDonald seemed to have a more contentious relationship due to that reporter’s lines of inquiry about McDonald and the EDA’s financial dealings, Bianchini and McDonald appeared to maintain a good working relationship as evidenced by a series of June 2017 texts from McDonald to him related to developments at her home property that were included in the police file.
The FRPD case file indicates no sign of forced entry into the old Avtex Admin building or the EDA office in that building shared with the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission; or of any helpful forensic evidence.
Interviews with McDonald and the two other EDA staffers who work out of the office, Marketing Director Marla Jones and Secretary Missy Henry, indicated only those three had keys or knew an office combination lock that Henry told police had been changed a few days before the office break-in. Jones also told police that the working relationship between the three was excellent and there was no animosity between the EDA staff.
As far as additional evidence available to the civil case plaintiff, it has also been noted by several court observers at the McDonald misdemeanor criminal trial – Shaw and Bianchini were barred from the courtroom as witnesses in the case – that Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden left several potentially crucial witnesses uncalled as part of the prosecution case. Those uncalled witnesses who were available to testify included FRPD Investigator Waller, EDA Marketing Director Marla Jones, and EDA Secretary Missy Henry.
Waller headed the town police investigation into the EDA office break-in and developed evidence related to the McDonald property vandalism.
Jones told police investigators that Bianchini was in McDonald’s office between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 15, 2017, when he told FRPD investigators he received the information about the rock-throwing vandalism. Jones also told police that McDonald had no morning meetings on Friday, June 16, 2017, when McDonald attorney Crump asserted this reporter was scheduled to meet with his client, rather than the previous afternoon.
Jones told police that McDonald told her about the vandalism incident “Around 9 a.m.” the morning of June 16, 2017. Investigator Waller then asked if McDonald had any meetings that morning. “No, we talked most of the morning,” Jones replied of McDonald’s June 16, 2017 schedule the morning after the vandalism.
It was on Henry’s calendar that McDonald attorney Crump insinuated at trial his client had a 9:30 a.m. June 16 meeting scheduled with Bianchini. That alleged Friday-morning meeting was pivotal to the defense scenario that Bianchini received the information about the vandalism from McDonald the morning after it happened, rather than the prior afternoon about six hours before she reported the incident.
The false police report case revolved around Bianchini’s statement to FRPD around 10:30 a.m., Friday, June 16, 2017, that he had learned details of the home vandalism incident from McDonald in her office the previous afternoon around 3 p.m.
In seeking the maximum $25,000 civil compensation available in General District Court Sayre cites: “reputational harm … since it was clear numerous people in the Town and County had heard about the allegations against Tom” and “that if he was indicted and/or convicted for these crimes he could lose his law license, be unemployable, be removed from the Board (of Supervisors), and he and his family would suffer immensely.
“Tom lost significant sleep, suffered acute anxiety, could not focus at work, sought counseling from his Priest, spent countless hours seeking to clear his name and repair damage to his reputation.”
And on December 19 attorneys will argue if there is a substantive legal argument that Sayre’s lost sleep and acute anxiety had enough of a basis in documentable evidence to be argued as a civil case before the court.
UPDATE: EDA resolves to pay back soaring audit expenses as completion looms
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:
County raises cap on additional EDA audit expenses to $250,000
The annual audit to verify and balance the books of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) became significantly more expensive on Tuesday morning, February 5. Following a closed session, the Warren County Board of Supervisors authorized additional payments of up to $110,000 related to the audit of EDA finances and debt service payments.
The authorizations passed unanimously on motions by Vice-Chairman Tom Sayre and seconds by Linda Glavis, increase expenses incurred by additional contracted legal and accounting entities involved in the EDA audit from $140,000 to a new cap of $250,000.
The first motion authorized raising the cap on payments to Richmond law firm Sands-Anderson from $50,000 to $100,000; the second motion authorized the transfer of $60,000 to an EDA account in order to pay the audit consultant for invoices submitted for work done.
The initial authorization of an invoice payment of $90,000 to the auditing consultant for three months work done was made by the supervisors on December 21. The initial $50,000 cap on payments to Sands-Anderson was authorized by the supervisors on January 8.
The audit, begun in mid-September 2018 and now continuing into early February 2019, involves the two additionally-contracted entities, Sands-Anderson and the anonymous accounting consultant, in addition to the EDA’s traditionally-contracted auditor Yount-Hyde-Barbour. The accounting consultant’s identity has not been revealed due to a claim of attorney-client privilege by EDA counsel.
This year the EDA audit coincided with the Town of Front Royal Finance Director’s discovery that over an eight-year period the Town had overpaid more than $291,000 in debt service payments related to three projects to the EDA. It remains unknown whether additional Town over-payments have been discovered or whether a similar situation exists on the County’s side of EDA debt service payments.
At its monthly meeting of January 30, the EDA Board of Directors appointed newest member Ed Daley to assist EDA Interim Executive Director John Anzivino to a “task force” to act as the EDA’s liaison to those contracted consultants in “the ongoing investigation” of EDA finances.
Also on January 30 in closed session the EDA board got a report from its auditing consultant from which Town and County official present were excluded.
EDA Board Chairman Gray Blanton explained the exclusion in a statement stating that the EDA was receiving new information that would “provide us 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 …”
Blanton added that once the EDA had “all the information and answered all our questions” regarding the audit it would seek meetings with the full town council and full board of supervisors “to brief them and present our plan for moving forward.”
Former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald submitted her resignation to the board by e-mail shortly before a scheduled December 20 closed session at which her job performance was to be discussed for the second time within a week.
Following a lengthy closed session on December 14 that included a review of McDonald’s job performance the EDA board passed two resolutions removing its executive director from contract and check-writing authority and from administrative authority over the EDA’s bank accounts.
A town council resolution tracing a timeline of the town government’s discovery of debt service payment irregularities involving a trio of capital improvement projects cites an August 23 meeting between town officials, the town attorney and auditors and McDonald, then EDA Board Chairman Greg Drescher and EDA Attorney Dan Whitten.
The next day Drescher announced he would step down as chairman of the EDA board, citing his work load as superintendent of public schools. Other EDA turnovers in recent months include the retirement of long-time EDA board member and Treasurer Billy Biggs on October 8, due to health and age-related issues; and the early fall retirement announcement of bookkeeper Josie Rickard, effective in December. Following Rickard’s announcement, in October the EDA announced the hiring of the accounting firm of Hottel & Willis.
EDA revisits costs surrounding Main Street Market site in old Stokes Mart
At its regular monthly meeting of January, the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority revisited discussion at a special meeting a week earlier about the authority’s ongoing ownership of the old Stokes Mart building now housing the Main Street Market.
At the January 30 regular board meeting, Main Street Market owner Ginny Lesser was present to explain her perspective on normal maintenance costs she is responsible for versus major structural repairs to the building she hopes the EDA will foot the bill for.
As EDA Secretary Missy Henry reported on January 23, Lesser is willing to pay for heating and air-conditioning (HVAC) maintenance in an attempt to reduce what has been an average $1500-plus monthly utility bill over the past two billing cycles, if the EDA will cover a minimally-estimated $51,000 roof repair expense. The HVAC repair has been estimated at around $14,000. The $51,000 roof repair is for a shingled roof, compared to a $144,000 estimate for a metal roof replacement, EDA staff explained.
Board member Ed Daley suggested that with potential contractor inspections and bids anticipated in that price range on the roof work in coming weeks that the EDA should have a structural engineer involved to represent its interests in getting the best deal possible. Interim Executive Director John Anzivino agreed, observing that the EDA should have a substantial overview of what it is taking on in costs and maintenance responsibilities for the building – “It is an EDA-owned building, we have a responsibility to fix it,” he told the board.
Lesser told the EDA Board of Directors the office portion of the building has been closed off but the heating-related utility bills remain what she called “shockingly high”.
Board member Ron Llewellyn, who took the point on January 23 in wondering if the EDA should consider a sale of what he observed has become a money pit for the authority, pointed at a lack of insulation in the building that once housed Stokes Mart.
“There is no insulation in the building – I worked there about 40 years ago when I was in high school,” Llewellyn told his colleagues of what is apparently not a new issue of structural maintenance.
EDA Attorney Dan Whitten pointed out that like the previous tenant, B&G Goods that went out of business within two years, Lesser has a lease with an option to buy on the property.
Asked what the purchase price of her option to buy was, Lesser replied the remaining principal on the EDA’s purchase loan. Whitten verified that lease-to-buy price in Lesser’s contract.
The Main Street Market owner also said it was her understanding that her monthly rental covered the EDA’s mortgage payment. EDA Secretary Henry pointed to a recent rise in that payment, noting Lesser’s rental payment still came close but no longer entirely covered the EDA’s mortgage payment.
Llewellyn has cited a $440,000 number in questioning what he has termed a “too-high” EDA investment in the property at the intersection of East Main and Water Streets in downtown Front Royal, with an additional $50,000 or more expense looming. He has questioned the authority’s ability to recoup its investment through a sale.
The 2014 Deed of Transfer to the EDA/IDA (Industrial Development Authority) cites a purchase price of $398,218.85 and an assessment of $477,000. Whitten said the deed of purchase indicates the $398,000-and-change price covers both the Stokes Mart building and the residential rental building at the corner of East Main and Water Streets.
“I’m concerned where we’re going to end up – we should be cautious,” Daley told his colleagues of coming expenses to maintain the property as either a viable source of rental income or an attractive purchase option.
“We should explore interest in a sale,” Llewellyn reiterated of the point he made a week earlier. And on the topic of sales, Llewellyn told the board he had explored the EDA purchase of the building and discovered that despite the in-town location the town government had not been a catalyst in pushing the EDA toward that purchase.
“That is correct,” Town Manager Joe Waltz said of his exploration of the Town role, if any, at the time the building was purchased from former county supervisor Bernie Stokes’ trust in 2014. Stokes owned and operated the downtown business for decades before his retirement due to age and failing health.
Interim Executive Director John Anzivino was given direction to explore coming maintenance bids and oversee that the EDA interest in repairs at a reasonable price is maintained in conjunction with Lesser’s interest in her business on the site.
“I think we’ve given John enough on this,” board Chairman Blanton observed.
That discussion segued into Anzivino’s report on recent conversations regarding setting up electrical service at the EDA office complex through solar panels installed in the roof of the of the old American Viscose Admin building.
“I met with Green Technologies yesterday,” Anzivino reported. He explained that software was still being installed to allow the power to be shifted to the building’s internal systems to facilitate individual EDA and tenant controls of their electricity through the solar panel system.
Contacted about the potential of a solar power aspect to repairs at the Main Street Market while roof and HVAC repairs are being explored, EDA Attorney Whitten said there was no plan to install solar panels in the old Stokes Mart building as a potential alternative energy source.
WATCH: EDA Board of Director’s Meeting – January 30th
Here’s the latest EDA Board Meeting. Watch your EDA at work:
Includes reports from County Administrator Doug Stanley and Town Manager Joe Waltz.
The Board went into closed session at the end of their meeting to discuss the following:
Section 2.2-3711.A.5: Discussion concerning a prospective business or industry or expansion of an existing business or industry where no previous announcement has been made of the business’s or industry’s interest in locating or expanding its facilities in the community. Such business to be located on the Avtex site, Stephens Industrial Park, Main Street, and Happy Creek Area.
Section 2.2-3711.A.8: Consultation with legal counsel employed or retained by a public body regarding specific legal matters requiring the provision of legal advice by such counsel. I further move that discussion be limited to the discussion of EDA loan programs, accounting and debt service issues and related matters. Also, termination of contract for property located in Shenandoah Magisterial District.
Interim Director outlines search process for a permanent EDA executive
John Anzivino, right, is greeted by EDA Board Treasurer Tom Patteson at the Jan. 10 meeting at which his contract as interim executive director was approved. Royal Examiner File Photo/Roger Bianchini
Front Royal-Warren County Interim Executive Director John Anzivino presented an outline and timeframe for finding a permanent replacement for departed EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald at the January 30 EDA Board meeting. Anzivino’s schedule would see new executive leadership in place by the second week of May “or sooner” and an announcement and introduction of that new leadership the first week of April.
Anzivino’s outline included an overview of the job responsibilities in recruiting and promoting economic development in the community and recommended levels of experience and qualifications for applicants. Anzivino noted that he was working with fairly-recently retired Warren County Finance Director Carolyn Stimmel and current County Human Resources Director Jodi Saffelle in developing the application process.
Anzivino suggested posting the job through multiple economic development agencies and their websites, in addition to the County website. In addition to the County, the recommended job availability distribution network would include the Virginia Economic Development Association (VEDA), the Virginia Municipal League (VML), Virginia Association of Counties (VACO) and possibly the International Economic Development Council (IEDC). He also suggested the board consider an economic development agency posting across state lines in North Carolina, which he observed has municipal areas similar developmentally to the Northern Shenandoah Valley and Warren County.
After noting that a salary range was not included in his proposed job posting in order to give the board leeway in negotiations, the interim executive director suggested the EDA Board consider a range between $90,000 and $115,000 for qualified applicants. He also described the target group of applicants as being “younger professionals and some mid-range folks” experience-wise.
EDA Board member Mark Baker questioned the absence of a professional recruitment consultant in Anzivino’s proposal. Anzivino pointed to his own experience in job recruitment noted in his proposal: “The job specifications have been developed from my observations and short-term knowledge of the Authority and its needs, my knowledge of similar positions and my experience as a professional recruiter for a variety of positions, including those in the economic development field,” Anzivino wrote in the introduction of his proposal in the meeting agenda packet.
“So you’re our recruiter,” Baker responded.
“I guess so,” Anzivino said.
As noted in the press release announcing approval of his contract for the interim position, Anzivino brings a wealth of municipal experience to his interim assignment.
“He was most recently the interim Town Manager in the Town of Purcellville after working for Springsted Incorporated for 16 years. He has over 30 years of experience in local government including such chief executive roles as the Town Manager of the Town of Warrenton, the County Administrator for Caroline County and the County Administrator for Amelia County,” the press release stated of Anzivino’s qualifications to head the EDA through this transition period.
Anzivino was upbeat in assessing the board’s ability to attract qualified candidates. He said that he had been impressed at a distance as he worked around Virginia in seeing Warren County’s success in attracting new business and expanding its commercial tax base.
“So there’s success here and people want to be a part of that,” he told the EDA Board of Directors.
EDA ‘Task Force’ appointed to liaison with audit investigators – Town, County reps excluded from closed session audit report
After an hour-and-thirty-eight minutes behind closed doors – much of it devoted to an initial report from the confidential accounting consultant hired to help with the four-month-and-counting audit of EDA finances – the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors’ newest member Ed Daley was appointed to assist Interim Executive Director John Anzivino in working with those contracted consultants in “the ongoing investigation” of EDA finances.
“And the task force is set,” EDA Board Chairman Gray Blanton said after Daley’s appointment was approved by a 5-0 vote on a motion by Ron Llewellyn, seconded by Vice-Chairman Bruce Drummond, with Greg Drescher absent and Daley abstaining.
With the term “task force” raising the specter of multi-jurisdictional governmental probes so much in the national consciousness these days, following adjournment of the nearly three-hour January 30 monthly meeting we asked EDA Attorney Dan Whitten exactly what the newly formed, two-man EDA Task Force’s role would be.
“The task force’s work is (with) the consultant working with our outside legal counsel to basically complete any investigation that’s necessary,” Whitten told media present.
That outside legal counsel is Richmond law firm Sands-Anderson. Sands-Anderson attorney Dan Siegel has long served as a bond consultant to the EDA and Warren County. Accompanying Siegel at Wednesday’s meeting, including the closed session, was Sands-Anderson attorney Cullen Seltzer. Sands-Anderson was contracted on January 8 by the county supervisors at a rate of “up to $50,000” to provide an ongoing legal presence in the now three-pronged EDA audit.
Those three prongs are the EDA’s traditional auditor Yount-Hyde-Barbour; the accounting consultant referenced in the motion to go into closed session whose identity has not been revealed due to a claim of attorney-client privilege and which was authorized for a payment of $90,000 by the County on December 21 for three months work already done; and Sands-Anderson.
Of Sands-Anderson role in the audit Whitten elaborated, “They’re representing the EDA’s interests in providing legal services … they’re helping me out so I can go back to representing the County full time.” The county attorney also serves as EDA attorney.
There had been some hope expressed by EDA Board Chairman Blanton in recent weeks that the audit might be completed by the board’s January meeting. However in the wake of the closed session report from the still-redacted auditing consultant, Whitten says February is now the target for completion of the audit.
“It could be the first or second week of February but definitely by the end of February,” Whitten said of completion of the audit, as well as any additional reporting on the audit the consultant deems necessary.
“Our financial consultant is working with our regular auditor on finishing up the audit so the EDA board can approve it,” Whitten said of the now multi-faceted review of EDA finances. That review began in the wake of the May 2018 discovery of eight years of capital improvement debt service overpayments by the Town of Front Royal to the EDA. Board Chairman Blanton has previously told the media that when asked about the Town overpayments, McDonald assured him, “Yes, we have the money.”
Of the work of the auditing consultant, Whitten said in December, “Basically it’s an outside eye coming in outside of your normal accountant and normal auditor … they do fact-finding, intrinsic review – that type of thing. It’s just basically they’re looking for indicia of any improper activities.”
Prior to asking for a motion to adjourn the 8 a.m. open meeting to closed session at 9:09 a.m., Board Chairman Blanton read a statement explaining why County and Town representatives present – including County Supervisor Tony Carter and Front Royal Mayor Hollis Tharpe – would be excluded from the closed session.
“Today, we will receive information from our consultants which we, as a board, will hear for the first time. The information will provide us 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. To ensure that we, as a board, have a clear understanding of the information and make the best decisions going forward we will be including only the board, designated staff and our outside counsel in our closed session.
“We will, in the near future, and when we are certain that we have all the information and answered all our questions, be requesting time with the full Town Council and the Board of Supervisors to brief them and present our plan for moving forward.”
Former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald submitted her resignation to the board by e-mail shortly before a scheduled December 20 closed session at which her job performance was to be discussed for the second time within a week.
As Royal Examiner’s Norma Jean Shaw first reported, during an internal review of town finances last August Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson discovered over $291,000 in capital improvement debt services overpayments to the EDA over an eight-year period.
Of the accounting discrepancies discovered on the Town side last year, McDonald told this reporter on November 27, one day after a divided town council approved by a 4-2 vote a resolution detailing what had been discovered concerning Town-EDA financing irregularities, “We have acknowledged the issue and are working on it and are committed to making it right.”
As reported above, three weeks later, her job performance under continued scrutiny McDonald resigned; and within another three weeks the County had authorized the expenditure of up to $140,000 to bring additional accounting and legal eyes to bear in what board member Ron Llewellyn termed in his “task force” appointment motion Wednesday morning, “the ongoing investigation” of EDA finances.
Could it be “much ado about nothing” or something “rotten in the state of Denmark” to double quote the Bard of Avon. Tune in next month for the EDA audit report in what has become Warren County’s own little Shakespearean drama.