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.
Tran defense motions echo earlier filings, cite vague summary of allegations
On May 2, the attorney for ITFederal and its CEO Truc “Curt” Tran followed attorneys for the other seven defendants in the EDA civil suit of March 26 in filing defense motions attacking the style and substance of the case against their clients.
In the demurrer seeking dismissal of five of the six counts (1-4 and 6) in the EDA Civil Complaint it is asserted that the filing by attorney Cullen Seltzer of the Richmond law firm of Sand-Anderson lacks the legally-required specificity and factual basis to support its oft-stated conclusion that the defendants have acted to improperly divert EDA assets based “on information and belief”.
“And many of the Plaintiff’s allegations being made solely ‘on information and belief’ is fatal under the heightened pleading requirement for fraud,” Tran/ITFederal attorney Brandon H. Elledge writes citing case history, adding of such wording, “and thus to avoid dismissal, a fraud plaintiff must supplement such allegations with ‘a statement of facts on which the belief is founded’ and also ‘must delineate at least the nature and scope of plaintiff’s efforts to obtain, before filing the complaint, the information needed to plead with particularity’.”
As to the sixth count omitted from the Tran/ITFederal request for dismissal, Count 5 – “Breach of Fiduciary Duty of Loyalty” – the demurrer notes that it “does not purport to state a claim against Mr. Tran and ITFederal” but rather asserts actual claims “only against Defendant McDonald” – which does appear to be the case as it would impact all defendants other than McDonald. See Related Story:
“As an employee of the Warren EDA, Defendant McDonald owed the Warren EDA a fiduciary loyalty,” Count 5 begins in recounting the obligations of McDonald’s role as the executive director of the EDA.
And it is in the absence of the detail of the preceding 160 paragraphs leading to the $17.6 million-plus civil suit’s call for compensation in six counts against all nine defendants upon which defense attorneys have focused their arguments for dismissal.
The six counts seeking a judgment of “not less than $17,640,446.16” against “the Defendants jointly and severally” are: 1/ Fraud and Fraud in the Inducement; 2/ Conversion; 3/ Conspiracy; 4/ Unjust Enrichment; 5/ Breach of Fiduciary Duty of Loyalty; and 6/ Ultra Vires (improper) Transactions and Agreements.
And other than that one mention of the minimum of $17.6-million-and-change of allegedly misdirected or embezzled EDA assets there is no other reference to specific amounts of money tied to any defendant in the plaintiff presentation of the resultant civil “Counts” against those defendants. In fact, only “Defendant McDonald” and “Defendant Earthright Energy LLC” are cited in the six counts – McDonald in the aforementioned Count 5 “Breach of Fiduciary Loyalty” that does appear focused on her alone; and Earthright Energy LLC in Count 6 “Ultra Vires Transactions and Agreements” related to work arrangements or contracts engaged in with Earthright Energy through McDonald without approval of the EDA Board of Directors “in the manner required by law.”
However as alluded to above and noted in previous stories on the EDA complaint and defense motions against it, there is detail concerning specific amounts of money involved in specific transactions involving specific defendants throughout the first 160 paragraphs of the complaint. Those 160 graphs appear to present the basis of fact and finance leading to the final 39 paragraphs stating of the more generalized summary of offenses described in Counts 1 through 6 of the EDA civil suit. See Related Story:
However for Tran/ITFederal attorney Elledge that detail too, is lacking.
“While the Complaint is long on allegations as to McDonald’s misconduct, it offers very little as to Defendants … Tran … and ITFederal except for conclusory recitations or vague statements made only ‘on information and belief’,” Elledge asserts, adding, “Mr. Tran and ITFederal expressly deny the meritless claims asserted against them and any alleged wrongdoing in this matter.”
Of the summary nature of the stating of the Counts against the defendants, the Tran/ITFederal defense memorandum of support of the demurrer for dismissal states, “… the group pleading method employed by the Warren EDA in its Complaint is improper and fails to fairly inform Mr. Tran and ITFederal of the nature of the claims levied against them …”
However, is that true of the first 160 paragraphs of the 199-graph complaint – well 209-graphs if you include the 10 paragraph “Prayer for Relief” seeking return of EDA assets, attorneys fees and “punitive damages (of at least one million dollars) jointly and severally against the Defendants”?
The complaint devotes many paragraphs to the securing of a $10-million bank loan for Tran/ITFederal through the EDA, citing the involvement of McDonald and then-U.S. Congressman Robert Goodlatte, R-6th, along with Tran. It is noted that loan was made at Goodlatte’s request despite repeated assertions by “Tran and Defendant McDonald …that Tran did not need the financial support of the Town and Warren EDA”.
However that “unnecessary” $10 million dollars of financial support was acquired, along with the gift of a 30-acre parcel at the Royal Phoenix site publicly valued by the EDA at $2 million for a one dollar price. Conditions were attached to that gift, including completion of the project by an eventually extended completion date of mid-2020; and a reduction of the scope of the project from an approximate 40,000 s.f. in a three-building complex alleged by Goodlatte to produce over 600 high-paying tech jobs through ITFederal to the community, to a 10,000 square-foot building producing at least 10 jobs of indeterminate wage.
And while the complaint notes that far less than $10 million appears to have been spent to date on the ITFederal Project here, the Tran/ITFederal motion for dismissal asserts Tran did nothing wrong and has worked within the parameters of his agreement with the EDA, both on the loan and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding nearly $1.5 million in what is described as “Subsequent Payments to ITFederal” alleged to have been unauthorized by the EDA.
Regarding the Count of “Conversion” of EDA assets to Tran’s personal benefit, Elledge writes on behalf of his clients, “The only Warren EDA funds allegedly retained by ITFederal are a $10 million loan pursuant to a promissory note and a deed of trust and some $1.5 million pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding. Thus, ITFederal received those funds in accordance with such agreements. Plaintiff does not – and cannot – allege a breach of such agreements, and it, therefore, alleges no right to immediate possession of the funds. Rather, it lawfully controls them subject to the terms of the loan documents and the MOU …
“The only payments due to Plaintiff is the repayment terms of the promissory note, and it has not – and cannot – allege that ITFederal has breached or defaulted on any of its contractual obligations,” the Tran/ITFederal filing in support of its motion for dismissal states.
But at issue for the EDA as plaintiff is an alleged fraud perpetrated by Tran in conjunction with McDonald in her role as EDA executive director and possibly others, to acquire the loan, gift of property and “Subsequent Payments to ITFederal”. That fraud is alleged to involve a $140 million in purported ITFederal government contract the plaintiff found no evidence exists – though Elledge asserts it does – as well as websites said to create a false impression of financial viability of Tran companies the plaintiff asserts there is no discovered substantive support of, and false representations of Tran’s personal worth and intentions of investment in this community.
“Plaintiff does not allege any cohesive fraudulent scheme here, but rather a series of independent transactions connected only by the involvement of Defendant McDonald … In the portions of the Complaint referencing Mr. Tran and ITFederal, Plaintiff obscures who actually made what representations at issue by repeating the phrase ‘Tran and Defendant McDonald represented, through McDonald (emphasis in context) … Such vague construction fails to establish Mr. Tran’s connection to the alleged misrepresentations by omitting how Mr. Tran managed to represent anything ‘through McDonald’,” the Tran/ITF filing states, adding, “By lumping Mr. Tran together with Defendant McDonald and referencing ‘multiple occasions,’ Plaintiff unsuccessfully tries to create an impression of wrongdoing without articulating who made what statement to whom on which occasion.”
From a different angle, Tran/ITFederal attorney Elledge echoes Jennifer McDonald attorney Lee Berlik’s argument that his client is being villainized for the alleged actions of other defendants and/or bad decisions by past EDA boards.
“Plaintiff suggests every statement by every counterparty it now regrets crediting was a false statement by Ms. McDonald … instead of a false statement to Ms. McDonald (emphasis in context),” Berlik wrote in his April 16 filing on his client’s behalf, adding, “The Warren EDA is looking for someone to blame for every decision it now regrets since new leadership has taken over – and Ms. McDonald is it.”
From Tran’s legal perspective he has simply taken advantage of a series of sweetheart deals offered by the EDA Board of Directors at the urging of friends in high places, including Congressman Goodlatte and the EDA’s then executive director.
What could possibly be wrong with that?
At issue in the wake of the filing of the series of defense demurrers for dismissal of the cases against their clients is will that question in regard to all defendants ever be argued in front of a jury in a Warren County or any other courtroom?
2017 EDA Investigation Part 6: FRPD questions former Town Councilman Bret Hrbek
FRONT ROYAL – Just over two years ago, on May 18, 2017, McDonald telephoned the Front Royal Police Department to report a break-in at the office located at 400-D Kendrick Lane. Found at the scene were photos of McDonald with the face scratched out on the board meeting room table, and another photo of McDonald’s face with a knife stuck through the forehead in the seat she normally occupied during board meetings, as well as some defaced family photos, also on the meeting room table.
According to the Front Royal Police Department investigative file, obtained through a Royal Examiner Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, McDonald also told police that May 18th morning, that a week earlier, on May 11, 2017, she arrived at work to find a knife lying in her desk chair. There was no signed of forced entry, nor was a call made to police.
Police said nothing was reported missing, there was no sign of forced entry and to this day, the case remains unsolved.
Despite the fact that McDonald reported to officers nothing was missing from her office, she later told police when they invited her in for a sit-down, recorded interview with Investigators Landin Waller and Crystal Cline that several files were missing from the office, specifically the ITFederal folder, the Regional Justice Academy folder and the Workforce Housing folder.
Using information gleaned from the interview with McDonald, the FRPD investigative team invited Ron Llewellyn and John Costello–both of whom McDonald said knew about the missing files—to sit down for interviews.
In late spring of 2017, this reporter was contacted by a source who relayed a conversation the source held with Bret Hrbek regarding Truc “Curt” Tran and his identity as the “anonymous benefactor” who would fund the building of an $8 million regional justice training academy in Warren County, that was described by McDonald and then-Sheriff Daniel McEathron during a radio interview I conducted with them in the spring of 2016.
As Front Royal Police Department Investigators continued interviews with anyone who might have a link to the case, Hrbek also came up on the Department’s radar. He would prove, however, to be of little value to the investigation.
In the next video segment, Jennifer McDonald’s longtime co-worker and EDA Director of Marketing Marla Jones answered investigator’s questions as they attempted to unravel the mystery of exactly what transpired at the EDA office at 400-D Kendrick Lane on May 18, 2017.
EDA civil complaint: How does a gift become a $651,690 loss?
In Part 2 of Royal Examiner’s look into details of the March 26 EDA civil suit, another prominent Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development project resulting in a significant, if not multi-million dollar financial loss will be explored. That project was the Workforce Housing apartment complex plan designed to provide affordable housing for entry-level workers in teaching, law enforcement and emergency services professions.
It was a project that immediately attracted Royal Examiner and one public officials’ attention due to unanswered questions about costs, legality and eventually, changing circumstances.
Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger first publicly began asking hard questions about the price listed on a “gift”; and then EDA-requested town building code exemptions to reduce costs that would likely not be granted to a private-sector developer. Later County Supervisors Archie Fox and Tom Sayre joined in the questioning as the foundation of the project continued altering in a fluid and ever-changing manner.
In case you forgot, that manner was:
– In the fall of 2014 a 3.5-acre parcel at the end of Royal Lane in Front Royal is presented to the EDA Board of Directors as a gift for public use;
– It is a gift assessed at $305,000 with an inflated $445,000 price tag attached to it;
– It is a gift from relatives of EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Campbell, who are in the real estate business;
– As of April 2017 it is no longer a gift;
– It is revealed there was an undisclosed developmental deadline tied to the original owners’ receiving federal tax credits for the gift of the property for public use that was not met;
– The 3.5-acre property must be returned to the owners or purchased by the EDA at the inflated $445,000 price attached to the deed of gift;
– On April 28, 2017 the EDA Board of Directors agrees to purchase the property for $445,000 because it is indicated by EDA Executive Director McDonald and then-board Chair Patty Wines that the EDA has already invested nearly a half million dollars in preparatory work, including site planning, engineering, town and state DEQ permitting fees, though not a shovel of dirt had been turned on the parcel at the end of dead-end Royal Lane;
– Following the May 19, 2017 release of a 383-page summary of the project following a request for information by Councilwoman Egger, the EDA’s executive director verifies to this reporter that only $10,500 of unrecoverable money had been invested in the property at the time of the EDA board decision to purchase;
See related story.
– It is revealed by the EDA that a private sector development group, the Aikens Group, has been involved secretly from the 2014 advent of the project and that Aikens had agreed to purchase the property from the original owners for the $445,000 price attached to the property transfer;
– The forensic audit of EDA finances launched in the wake of the Town of Front Royal’s mid-2018 discovery of nearly a decade of debt service overpayments to the EDA totaling over $291,000 begins in mid-September 2018; and continues to this day at a cost of over three-quarters of a million dollars.
– On November 28, 2018, the EDA sells the Workforce Housing property to Cornerstone LLC for $10 (ten dollars).
– On March 26, 2019, “The Workforce Housing – Royal Lane Property Embezzlements” are listed as a $651,690 loss in a civil suit filed on behalf of the EDA as a result of the aforementioned forensic audit.
– Contacted in April after Royal Examiner received the Royal Lane Deed of Sale, EDA Board Chairman Gray Blanton, who was appointed chairman in September 2018, said he only saw the final page of the deed of sale, which was the signature page. Due to Dan Whitten’s recusal for potential conflict of interest as both EDA and County Attorney, local real estate attorney Joe Silek Jr. represented the EDA in the transaction. Also contacted regarding the transaction, Silek said that no price was on the deed of sale when it was forwarded from the EDA to the Winchester law firm of McCarthy-Akers for completion. Asked why the EDA would agree to take a $444,990 loss (that appears to have grown to a $577,501.77 or even $651,690) on the property, Silek said, “I don’t think they did,” and referred us to attorney Doug McCarthy of McCarthy-Akers for further information. At publication of this story Royal Examiner had yet to get a response from a May 3 message left for McCarthy at the company phone number seeking information about the transaction.
EDA civil complaint
How does the EDA civil action view this project history in seeking the return of $651,690 of lost EDA money? Of the late November sale, it says this:
“When interviewed on December 6, 2018, Defendant McDonald continued to maintain that the Aikens Group would refund the Warren EDA the full cost of the Royal Lane Property and any improvements, when she knew said property had been conveyed by the Warren EDA on November 28, 2018 to Cornerstone for consideration of $10.”
What the complaint doesn’t state is why the EDA board or its legal representation would agree to sell a property under heavy scrutiny by the forensic audit at a loss in the range of $450,000 to $650,000.
That transaction came as scrutiny of the executive director was intensifying as the forensic audit progressed. Following several hours of closed session discussion of the forensic audit findings and her job performance on December 14, 2018, McDonald had her contract, check-writing and administrative authority over EDA bank accounts stripped by the EDA board. Facing a second closed session on the same topics a week later, McDonald submitted her resignation and according to the EDA lawsuit attempted to cap her financial liability at $2.7 million dollars.
However as noted above, it was not McDonald’s signature on that $10 deed of sale, nor was she the EDA’s legal representative in that transaction that is simply one chapter in what has been a twisting and seemingly inexplicable, nearly five-year saga surrounding the attempted transfer of the Campbells’ 3.5-acre Royal Lane parcel to a public use.
As previously reported, in an initial defense motion filing McDonald attorney Lee Berlik claimed his client is being vilified and scapegoated for past bad decisions of the EDA Board of Directors. “The Warren EDA, Plaintiff in this action, is engaged in an attempt to smear Ms. McDonald by blaming her for every bad decision made by the Warren EDA board over the last several years and turning business deals the Warren EDA now regrets into implausible conspiracies.”
However, the EDA civil action alleges a lengthy pattern of gaps, conflicting or misinformation from McDonald to the EDA board regarding what is termed the “Royal Lane Property Embezzlements”.
“The Warren EDA Board minutes during the time of these discussions do not reflect that Defendant McDonald ever timely disclosed the true ownership of the property, or her own active real estate agent business relationship to the owners, thus depriving the Warren EDA Board of knowledge that Defendant McDonald had an interest in the transaction,” paragraph 21 of the complaint states about the advent of the project.
That “active real estate agent business relationship” circa 2014-15 at the project’s inception is described in the previous paragraph of the complaint as McDonald’s role as “a real estate agent” in the Campbells’ “Century 21 – Campbell Realty” business.
Whatever the EDA board’s knowledge of the situation was, the complaint asserts further issues around the EDA workforce housing purchase, including an inflated sales price based on a sales contract it alleges McDonald forged.
“Notwithstanding that the Warren EDA authorized only up to $445,000 to purchase the Royal Lane Property, Defendant McDonald in fact directed the Warren EDA to pay $577,511.50 (emphasis added) for the Royal Lane Property which included property settlement costs of $2,511.50,” graph 29 of the EDA complaint states.
The complaint continues with graph 31’s assertion, “The original sales contract contemplated a purchase price of $445,000. See attached Exhibit 2. Defendant McDonald’s forged contract with the altered purchase price information reflecting a purchase price of $575,000 included a payment of $125,000. See attached Exhibit 3. The unusual payment of $125,000 occurred on March 15, 2016 prior to and outside of property settlement to a third party.
“Thus at closing, the sellers of the Royal Lane Property, the aunt and uncle of Defendant McDonald, and/or Defendant McDonald, were enriched by an additional $130,000 to the detriment of the EDA …When confronted with this discrepancy , Defendant McDonald falsely stated that $575,000 was the Warren EDA authorized purchase price and that the Aikens Group, a company that Defendant McDonald represented intended to develop the Royal Lane property, had repaid $125,000 of the purchase price to the Warren EDA,” graphs 32 and 33 of the complaint assert.
OKAY, wait, what?!? – “McDonald in fact directed the Warren EDA to pay” an additional $132,511.50 (and they agreed to that?); then the inflated-price contract was “forged”; then the Aikens Group appears out of a hat again?!?
Whoever was puppeteer whomever, however, the complaint continues that in order to support her assertion the Aikens Group had repaid the added $125,000, McDonald “provided a redacted loan statement from Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC that omitted the property address and name and address of the Borrower.
“Later investigation revealed, however, that $125,000 had not been repaid to the Warren EDA. Instead, records show that a check payable to ‘Owen Loan Servicing LLC’ had been written from a Warren EDA bank account in the amount of $125,000,” graph 34 and 35 of the complaint states, leading to the conclusion the payment was made “to the benefit of Defendant McDonald and/or her family.”
However, unlike ITFederal CEO Truc “Curt” Tran, Earth Right Energy principals Donnie Poe and Justin Appleton, and former Sheriff Daniel McEathron, the latter as a partner in McDonald’s real estate companies, who were all listed as co-defendants with McDonald in the March 26 civil filing, despite the involvement of their property in this magical mystery tour real estate transaction the Campbells were not named as defendants in the March 26 civil suit seeking recovery of the above-cited EDA funds.
I don’t know about you, but this one made me dizzy.
EDA Investigation, Part 5: Local businessman John Costello is interviewed by the FRPD
FRONT ROYAL – Those Royal Examiner readers and viewers who have been following the EDA Break-in Series will notice that this one – part 5 – does little to clarify facts or answer any questions for lead investigator Landin Waller.
After then-Executive Director Jennifer McDonald reported a break-in at the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) office on May 18, 2017, detectives processed the scene, interviewing all subjects present, taking photographs, dusting surfaces for fingerprints, checking all doors and windows for signs of forced entry (there were no signs of forced entry, which were documented by photographs) and also questioning workers in adjacent offices and buildings within the Kendrick Lane campus.
McDonald was interviewed for about 90 minutes by Investigators Landin Waller and Crystal Cline, during which she cited a list of people whom she felt might be responsible for the alleged break-in, none of whom were ever established as substantive suspects by police. She also told the investigators that an EDA board member, Ron Llewellyn, had brought up the subject of files missing from her office.
Investigators found that interesting, as McDonald had previously reported that nothing was missing in the reported incident.
Officer Waller invited Llewellyn to have a conversation about the alleged missing files. Llewellyn’s interview was remarkable in several ways:
- Llewellyn states that he went to former Town Councilman and Vice-Mayor Shae Parker’s Hanna Signs business office after hours to pick up an order, and saw a group of people meeting there that included Parker, former Town Manager Mike Graham, former Town Mayor Stanley Brooks, former Town Councilman Tom Conkey and current Town Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger. Parker has stated to Royal Examiner that this meeting never occurred; Miss Egger stated that she has never even been in Parker’s place of business. Graham, Brooks and Conkey have also stated, on the record, that this meeting never occurred, at Parker’s shop or any other location.
- Llewellyn stated to Investigator Waller that the EDA board believed that some in the community weren’t supportive of McDonald, so they got together and voted as a group to give her a pay increase to “reaffirm” the board’s belief in her. Why, one might ask, would the board of an agency funded, in part, with tax dollars give a raise because of the public’s displeasure with the employee’s performance?
- Llewellyn stated that Congressman Goodlatte called McDonald, stating “you’ve got to resolve this” because this reporter – then the WZRV radio station News Director – had called Goodlatte’s office inquiring about ITFederal’s ability to accomplish what the congressman had claimed in the way of financial investment ($40 million) and job creation (600-plus). Llewellyn states that McDonald called the station owner, at Goodlatte’s prompting. (Within days, perhaps coincidentally, I was fired May 13, 2016 by station owner Andrew Shearer by telephone, after completing the noon news and a daily talk show, with no reason provided.) WZRV news staffer Roger Bianchini’s inquiries to ITFederal officials on the same topic were abruptly shut down by Shearer later the same day.
- According to a letter from then-EDA board Chairman Greg Drescher, Llewellyn stated the Front Royal Police Department did not take the break-in “seriously” and that “it never hurts to have another set of eyes on something” regarding the hiring of a private investigator by the EDA on July 17, 2017. The EDA board by way of its chairman, Drescher, eventually requested FRPD to shut down its investigation in favor of the private one being conducted by the EDA/McDonald-contracted investigator.
As a board member Llewellyn seemed to have a good bit of information involving the EDA, its inner-workings, and even knowledge of Congressman Goodlatte, and how important it was for him to contain certain information regarding Truc “Curt” Tran and ITFederal. So when Llewellyn told Waller that that he had learned of the missing EDA files from local businessman John Costello at a meeting at the Element restaurant in Front Royal, Waller was anxious to interview Costello.
John Costello had plenty of information to unpack it seemed—just not about EDA files. He seemed genuinely confused when asked about knowledge of any events occurring at the EDA office. Asked about meeting Llewellyn at Element, Costello explained that they were both part of a group of friends who had enjoyed playing tennis over the years, before poorer health set in, and that the group mostly met for drinks once a week. But Costello said that he and Llewellyn had not regularly talked for some time, citing a falling out that occurred after he and a group of friends got together in 2009 to help Llewellyn save a financially-strapped business.
Costello explained to Detective Waller that despite investing heavily in their friend Llewellyn’s business, he was less-than a friend in return:
Front Royal Police Department detectives continued investigating the May, 2017 incident. As they worked the case, their next lead would have them call in local financial advisor Bret Hrbek, in July, 2017 for an interview. Next up in the series, Royal Examiner readers will witness a July, 2017 interview with Hrbek, as we explore the Front Royal Police Department’s exhaustive attempts to clear the case.
EDA civil complaint details allegations surrounding key projects
While attorneys for defendants in the EDA civil litigation have focused on what they contend are vagaries in details of the cited misdirection of EDA assets, the complaint itself lists some detail, including specified amounts of money moved on a variety of projects contended to be conduits for the alleged embezzlement or misuse of EDA or EDA-enabled resources.
As previously reported by Royal Examiner, the projects or methods identified as those conduits for misdirection of EDA assets in the civil complaint are: the ITFederal Loan; Subsequent Payments to ITFederal; Workforce Housing – Royal Lane Property Embezzlements; Afton Inn Project Embezzlements; Criminal Justice Training Academy aka Skyline Regional Justice Training Academy; Unlawful Payments Concerning Earth Right Energy LLC; and Unlawful Payment of Town and Warren County Funds for Defendant McDonald Owned/Controlled Real Estate”.
Due to the voluminous material cited in the 199-paragraph, 32-page EDA civil complaint concerning the above-cited EDA projects, loans, private business and contractual arrangements, we will begin Royal Examiner’s more detailed exploration of the EDA lawsuit and initial defense responses by narrowing on specific portions of the complaint. Note that Royal Examiner is not asserting the truth of either the allegations in the complaint or defense responses to those allegations – merely reporting their existence and some detail.
Of particular focus regarding alleged false information being used to prop up the movement of the largest amount of misdirected EDA assets, a $10-million bank loan little of which appears to have been spent here nearly four years on is ITFederal’s recruitment as the first commercial redevelopment client at the former Avtex Superfund site. Six pages of the complaint are devoted to the ITFederal loan process.
Of the securing of a $10-million dollar loan to ITFederal the complaint states in paragraph 89, “Tran and Defendant McDonald represented, through McDonald, to the Town, the County and the Warren EDA multiple times that (a) Tran was a high-net worth individual, (b) he did not need any financial assistance from the Town, the County and the Warren EDA to make the ITFederal Project financially viable, (c) ITFederal/VDN Systems had procured a $140 million contract with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to provide information technology services on a long-term basis and (d) Tran had the endorsement and support of U.S. Congressional Representative Robert Goodlatte …”
Continuing in paragraph 99, “On information and belief, despite any nominal award of any federal contracts to ITFederal and/or VDN, the actual work and payments under any such federal contracts … appear to be not more than $5,000 over the last five years.”
Paragraph 100 of the complaint states, “The websites for ITFederal, VDN and ACRC (three Tran companies) all appear to be bogus websites with little or no substantive information or recent activity in connection with purported businesses. In some cases it appears they have not been updated since 2012. Based on information and belief, these websites were created to convey a false impression that ITFederal, VDN and ACRC were active businesses with a substantive source of income with the intent of fraudulently inducing the Warren EDA to make the ITFederal loan.”
As previously reported here, in motions filings McDonald attorney Lee Berlik has contested the assumption that McDonald was consciously lying in regard to many of the allegations against her, rather than simply repeating lies she was being told; or in other instances following through on methods of moving EDA assets approved by the EDA board to facilitate projects it later regretted becoming involved in.
“The Warren EDA, Plaintiff in this action, is engaged in an attempt to smear Ms. McDonald by blaming her for every bad decision made by the Warren EDA board over the last several years and turning business deals the Warren EDA now regrets into implausible conspiracies,” Berlik wrote on the first page of a defense motions filing on April 16, adding emphasis in context, “Plaintiff suggests every statement by every counterparty it now regrets crediting was a false statement by Ms. McDonald … instead of a false statement to Ms. McDonald.”
Beginning with her presentation of Tran and ITFederal to the EDA board and town government in 2014, the complaint alleges a lengthy effort by McDonald to mitigate Tran and his company’s costs and liability while at the same time working toward securing of a $10-million loan the complaint asserts she repeatedly told local officials Tran did not really need to accomplish his project.
Rather, the Town’s initial assistance in the way of a $10-million dollar “bridge loan” to facilitate a $10-million bank loan then EDA Attorney Blair Mitchell noted Congressman Goodlatte had requested in a 2015 email correspondence with McDonald, was presented as a means of promoting long-sought commercial redevelopment at the site. It is perhaps also noteworthy that the EDA put up the 117-acre balance of the Royal Phoenix Business Park property as collateral for the $10-million dollar ITFederal loan from First Bank & Trust.
“Tran and Defendant McDonald stated that Tran did not need the financial support of the Town and the Warren EDA, but that such assistance was requested by Rep. Goodlatte,” graph 90 of the complaint states; further noting the request that 30 acres of the 147-acre Royal Phoenix Business Park be donated to Tran and his company “free of charge” – well he did end up paying a dollar for the parcel valued at $2 million in open EDA meeting discussion – and to secure the loan to facilitate construction “of all or a part of the ITFederal Project.”
Then U.S. Congressman Goodlatte, R-6th, participated in the October 2015 ITFederal ribbon cutting, taking credit for the company’s arrival here and promoting a promised $40-million ITFederal investment in the community that would create 600-plus high-paying, largely tech industry jobs.
The EDA complaint filed by the Sands-Anderson law firm of Richmond also addresses Tran’s alleged ties and access to resources from the federal EB-5 Visa Program created to trade U.S. citizenship in exchange for significant private investment – cited at $1 million dollars – in the U.S. economy.
“Tran and Defendant McDonald represented, through McDonald, on multiple occasions to the County, the Town and the Warren EDA that ACRC had obtained or was in the process of obtaining EB-5 financing to finance the ITFederal Project,” the complaint asserts.
“The new venture must create and sustain at least ten full-time employees for at least two years in order for the investor seeking citizenship to convert his or her green card into full citizenship … ACRC (American Commonwealth Regional Center) is another entity established and controlled by Tran … ACRC represents it is an approved EB-5 regional center … However, based on a search on the USCIS website on February 12, 2019, ACRC does not appear to be an approved regional center for EB-5 financing.
“There is no evidence that ACRC has ever successfully obtained or used EB-5 financing in connection with the ITFederal Project or for any other purpose,” the complaint states.
The complaint also notes that in 2017 Tran requested a modification of his Borrowers Note and Deed of Trust that would have forced the initially-discussed purchase price of about $2 million to kick in if certain developmental conditions were not met by specific dates. That extension to September 2020 significantly reduced the required scope of the project from its initial three-building complex housing all those high-dollar jobs Goodlatte had trumpeted in a press release.
“On information and belief, little to no proceeds of the ITFederal Loan has been applied to the ITFederal Project … Tran and Defendant McDonald have converted all or a portion of the proceeds of the ITFederal Loan to their own personal benefit,” that section of the complaint concludes.
But there’s more – under “Subsequent Payments to ITFederal” an additional four pages of the EDA complaint allege an additional $1.82 million dollars of “Unauthorized ITFederal Payments”. Those payments include $1,432,771.32 in reimbursements to ITFederal for work done at the site and over $392,000 in vendor payments.
McDonald attorney Berlik also contends that the complaint fails to meet a legal obligation “to connect any alleged facts to specific claims” against defendants, limiting their ability to construct a viable defense against those claims against them.
But regarding those “Unauthorized ITFederal Payments” the complaint offers some specificity. It disputes McDonald’s initial explanation to her board that those payments were draws on the ITFederal Loan. “The proceeds of the $10 million loan made to ITFederal was issued in full at the time of closing in 2015; there is no evidence that the Warren EDA retained those funds or had any ability to approve invoices or otherwise control or direct those funds.”
The complaint then disputes representations attributed to McDonald that those payments would be reimbursed to the Warren EDA by a grant from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP). “It is clear from the VEDP documentation that Tran and Defendant McDonald met with the VEDP relating to ITFederal in the 2014/2015 timeframe, but that Defendant McDonald was unable to provide the information VEDP was requesting to award a grant related to the ITFederal Project …Defendant McDonald deliberately took Warren EDA funds and gave them to Tran/ITFederal with no reasonable expectation that such funds would be repaid or otherwise funded from another source,” the EDA litigation states.
The complaint concludes with an assertion that McDonald personally benefitted from those payments “as part of a scheme with Tran to fraudulently obtain Town and County funds for their own benefit.”
Well laid out, fraudulent schemes or implausible conspiracies?
That will be at issue for attorneys on both sides when and if the civil litigation proceeds into the courtroom for the requested jury trial. As previously reported, several defendants have moved for either dismissal of charges or delays in the civil process until the special grand jury investigating potential criminality related to the EDA civil suit is completed.
Next up, Workforce Housing – not as much money, a total loss to the EDA cited at $651,700, but perhaps an even more convoluted trail to that loss on a project initially presented in 2014 as a free land “gift” to the EDA. That cited financial loss appears to have been cemented by the EDA’s November 28, 2018 sale of the involved 3.5-acre Royal Lane parcel for $10. It is a sale accomplished over two months into the ongoing Cherry Bekaert forensic audit of EDA finances that resulted in the current civil litigation to recover lost assets.
Now why, you may wonder, would they do that?!?
New EDA executive director addresses opportunities, challenges of position
As reported Monday, April 29, the two-short Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors has selected the person to lead the EDA past the current financial and legal turmoil it is enmeshed in. See Related Story:
That person is Douglas J. Parsons, who as noted in the above story link comes here from a position as Business Manager for the Workforce Solutions Division of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP). In that role Parsons oversaw nearly 100 active accounts and prospective clients in the Northern Virginia area. Other experience includes three years as Business Development Manager for the Town of Leesburg; over a decade as the Lewis County EDA executive directorship; and project administration in the Region VI Planning and Development Council.
Parson has a Bachelor’s of Science degree in a dual major of Journalism/Advertising with a minor in Psychology from the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University. Parsons currently lives in Rippon, West Virginia, with his wife and son; and has a daughter currently living in Germany.
Parsons was selected from a pool of 12 applicants, four of whom were interviewed by the EDA board. As EDA Board Chairman Gray Blanton told us upon Parsons selection, “Mr. Parsons stood out and we’re glad to have him; the timing is good and his experience is good.” Other board members concurred.
“His experience in West Virginia and with the VEDP makes him an ideal candidate to lead our efforts to promote economic development in Front Royal and Warren County. His relationships with many area businesses and industry leaders will help us to move forward immediately,” Ed Daley said in a press release.
In a media interview following adjournment of the April 29 EDA board meeting, Parsons addressed his hopes for, and the challenges presented by, his new job.
“I realize there is a lot going on here and I take very seriously the situation the EDA’s in. I’m certainly committed to doing my part as the new director to help bring resolution to all the problems here,” Parsons began. “But really I’m more focused on the present and the future. I think Front Royal and Warren County have a great deal of potential as it relates to economic development – to have the infrastructure, the sites… the quality of life that this community has. I just think there’s incredible potential here for job creation and to expand the tax base.
“So as I come on board I obviously have to get the handle on the internal workings of what’s going on here. I’m anxious at some point to get into a process to update our strategic plan and redefine the organization, what our focus is so that we can best serve the people as it relates, first of all to working with the existing businesses here. I need to get out there and understand what challenges there are in the existing business community and see what resources I can bring to the table.
“And then on top of that of course there’s always opportunities to bring new businesses in. I want to make sure that my tools are as sharp as possible to help us be competitive and bring in as much new commerce as possible.”
Parsons said he would be tying up loose ends as he leaves his position with VEDP until he returns on Wednesday, May 8, to his new job. In his old position he described a triangle between Winchester, Arlington and Fredericksburg, including Warren County, as the territory he was responsible for. So he should certainly know something about the competition Front Royal and Warren County face in maintaining old and recruiting new business.
We asked Parsons how he thinks the distractions of the EDA’s current financial and legal situations might impact his ability to focus on those long-term goals of business maintenance and recruitment.
“My sense is that at the stage we are at now, with the pending litigation and with the FBI and the State Police involved, I don’t know what part I’m going to have to play going forward. Obviously I’m going to cooperate in anything that is asked of me. But on a day-to-day basis, I think at this point I’m really going to be able to focus on the traditional, ordinary EDA work,” Parsons replied. After all we observed, having not been here during the period under investigation, most anything he could offer would be hearsay as they say in the courtroom.
“Obviously any records that may still be here I’m gong to be completely forthright with, cooperating with the authorities with FOIA requests and all those things. But I think the first thing I need to do when I get in here is make sure I understand what’s going on, especially … finding of some of the unknowns – that’s priority one by a mile, making sure I understand what’s going on with the loan programs, the operating budget, you know, everything. I’m just going to get a handle on that.
“That’s priority number one, but at the same time I’ve got to get out in the community and understand what’s going on with the businesses, if there are businesses out there that are having challenges that I might be able to bring resources to the table to help them overcome. There may be businesses out there that are thinking of expanding employees and as they buy machinery that contributes to the tax base for the town and county.
“I certainly want to be able to add fuel to that fire to help companies grow that are here. I think it’s so important that an EDA takes care of the businesses that are here first because they are people who are here investing in the community now. They made the investment and they are employing people.”
Referencing the interim executive director’s April 29 meeting report on issues with some of the properties or buildings the EDA is currently renting out or trying to market, Parsons added, “That’s something I’ll need to get up to speed on … the properties we own and what the state is with those properties and the situation with their maintenance and operations, leases and all that. I just don’t know about all that right now,” Parsons said of another aspect of the task he is taking on.
As for aspects of that task there is also the largely vacant 147 acres of the planned Royal Phoenix Business Park portion of the former 467-acre Avtex Superfund site. Again Parsons pointed to his initial cram course in learning the dynamics of all EDA-controlled properties, particularly one with federally-imposed environmental covenants and restrictions.
“I understand some of it’s been set aside in a conservancy,” Parsons said of what he was informed is a large, perhaps 250 to 300-acre portion of the site abutting the Shenandoah River.
“I’ve got a lot to learn about that site and the environmental ramifications,” he said glancing south out the EDA office conference room windows with the high ground of Shenandoah National Park looming in the distance.
As for any lingering after affect of the financial audit and consequent litigation interfering with his ability to market the community as a business destination, Parsons said, “I don’t think so; I mean the assets of the community far outweigh the issues that we’re having. You know, new businesses coming in, I think they’re going to see all the things that we have to offer: we’re in a great geographic location, close to D.C. and yet we can offer a lot of advantages as far as real estate value, quality of life. I think we’ll be okay in that regard. I really don’t think it will scare off any business prospects,” Parson concluded on an upbeat note.