Two days after the 2018 mid-term elections, on Thursday, November 8, local Democrats and independents, many tied to the weekly Vigil for Democracy demonstrations in Front Royal against the actions and agenda of President Donald J. Trump, joined people nationwide in demonstrations in support of the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Front Royal was one of over 900 localities where demonstrations dubbed “Nobody is Above the Law – Mueller Protection Rapid Response” formed at 5 p.m. local times across the nation. Here Vigil for Democracy organizer Len Sherp, who has led weekly gatherings in protest of President Trump’s agenda since March 2017, led 25 people and Rusty the dog in a march from the Front Royal Town Gazebo to the South Royal Avenue side of the Warren County Courthouse.
While not permitted on such short notice, Sherp said he had informed town police of the planned demonstration and was told it could proceed as long as public right of ways were not blocked and normal foot or vehicular traffic was not interrupted.
“Hands off the Mueller probe, Trump is not above the law” local demonstrators chanted as they marched with American flags and signs expressing support of the Mueller investigation into foreign meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The group stopped in the shadow of the seat of justice in Front Royal and Warren County to repeat the chant for about 10 minutes to passing motorists on Royal Avenue before marching back down East Main Street to their Town Gazebo staging area. As they had walking westbound and during their stop at the courthouse, they again repeated the “Hands off the Mueller probe” manta eastbound through Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District.
We asked Sherp why the demonstrations under the auspices of MoveOn.org were called so soon after Trump forced the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions the day after the 2018 mid-term elections.
“We’re here because once again the president has demonstrated he has absolutely no fealty to the law, good government, and doesn’t care about anything except himself,” Sherp replied, adding, “The dismissal of Jeff Session within 24 hours of the results of the election, followed by the appointment of Matthew Whitaker who is completely unqualified for the job – not to mention is a partisan Trump loyalist who’s on record having dispute with some directions of the Mueller investigation; not to mention he laid out a blueprint on CNN on how to suffocate the Mueller investigation.”
The Whitaker blueprint Sherp mentioned was a Justice Department defunding of the Mueller probe.
Sherp said he sees three basic motivations for a long-anticipated Trump move against the attorney general, opening a path against the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling on his behalf during the 2016 campaign.
One is to eliminate the Mueller investigation before a Democratic majority is seated in the U.S. House of Representatives on or about January 6, 2019, with powers to subpoena Trump records and tax returns. Second is to distract from the result of the Tuesday mid-terms which Sherp described as “a repudiation of him as president”. And finally and most pointedly Sherp said, that after a pre-election hold on special counsel investigation actions, a new round of indictments is anticipated – potentially including Trump’s eldest son Donald Junior.
Vanity Fair magazine and The Daily Mail have reported that Donald Trump Jr. has told friends he fears he may soon be indicted for perjury connected to the Trump Tower campaign meeting with Russians. While Trump Junior’s attorney denies his client has made such statements, Vanity Fair has also reported that the president is “very depressed” about the prospect of his eldest son facing indictment for actions related to his campaign.
That depression, Sherp pointed out, could relate to the fact some sources have indicated that the president himself led discussion developing a “Russian adoptions” cover story for his son about the Trump Tower meeting overseen by Donald Junior. The adoptions cover story was allegedly developed during an Air Force One flight back from a European trip. Trump had been overseas when Donald Junior released emails related to setting up the Trump Tower meeting just before The New York Times was poised to release them.
The pre-Trump Tower communications indicated that Donald Junior initially believed information provided by a Russian attorney at the meeting would “incriminate Hillary” to which he replied enthusiastically “if it’s what you say I love it.”
The investigation thus far
Mueller is a former federal prosecutor and was FBI director under two presidents, George W. Bush who appointed him to a 10-year term, and Barack Obama who asked him to stay on until he appointed Comey in 2013.
Mueller was appointed as Special Counsel for the Russian election interference probe by Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein in May 2017. Upon his appointment as special prosecutor, Mueller was lauded from both sides of the political aisle as a man of unblemished integrity. Mueller has also been described as a lifelong Republican.
Mueller’s current appointment came amidst heavy pressure from both sides of the political aisle in the wake of the president’s firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey. Comey had been overseeing the FBI’s investigation into Russian efforts to impact the result of the 2016 presidential election in favor of Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Comey has stated that prior to his firing, the president asked for an oath of personal loyalty and that the FBI director back off any investigation of his then National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Flynn is one of six former Trump aides or appointees who have since pled guilty or been convicted on charges related to the special counsel’s investigation into Russian electoral interference. Thus far Mueller’s investigation has resulted in 35 indictments, 32 against people, 26 of those Russian nationals, including 12 Russian GRU intelligence operatives, as well as 3 Russian companies.
In addition to Flynn (guilty plea), among those convicted or pleading guilty to charges stemming from the special prosecutor’s investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election include one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort (convicted and guilty plea); Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos (guilty plea); Trump campaign aide Rick Gates (guilty plea); Republican operative and lobbyist Sam Patten (guilty plea); and Trump’s long-time personal attorney and so-called “fixer” Michael Cohen (guilty plea).
Most of those entering into plea arrangements with prosecutors are believed to have agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s team regarding their knowledge of activities surrounding Russian contacts or information transfers designed to aid the Trump presidential campaign.
‘Big Victory’ or Real Problems?
While the president has publicly claimed a “Big Victory” and “Tremendous success” in the November 6 mid-term election, gains made nationwide by Democrats, particularly in gaining a decisive U.S. House of Representatives majority initially standing at 223-205 with estimates the Democratic majority could rise to as much as 230 seats, spells trouble for the president.
As Sherp noted, it is the U.S. House of Representatives majority party that controls committees with subpoena, not to mention impeachment, powers over the president. And Sherp is far from alone in seeing Trump’s “the day after” forced resignation of Attorney General Sessions and appointment of his avid loyalist Matthew Whitaker as Acting Attorney General as the first step in a presidential effort to kill the Mueller investigation.
After Sessions recused himself from matters related to the Russia probe due to conflicts of interest involving his work for the Trump campaign and his own personal meetings with Russian officials in that capacity, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein inherited creation of and oversight of Mueller’s investigation.
Trump has repeatedly berated Sessions for his recusal, something legal experts say he had no choice but to do. The president’s ire has focused on his top administration law enforcement appointee taking himself out of a position to shield the president from potential legal consequences of the Russian investigation.
Acting Attorney General Whitaker appeared to audition for a job at the Trump Justice Department with television appearances and op-eds during which he termed the special prosecutor’s investigation a “witch hunt” and something that needed to be brought to a halt or defunded to the point it could no longer function. Whittaker also expressed a belief that broadening the Mueller investigation into the president’s personal or business finances would be “a violation” of the special prosecutor’s mandate to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Now Trump has placed Whitaker in a position to act on those stated beliefs. A question for many is if Whitaker does act to kill or stymie the Mueller investigation will he simply be putting a period on a potential obstruction of justice charge against both himself and the president.
But with administration dominoes being put in place to move against Mueller, citizens across the country are not waiting for the hammer to drop. Like Len Sherp and 25 companions here, they are taking to the streets nationwide to show they will not take interference in or obstruction of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe lightly.
Town Talk: A conversation with Sheriff Mark Butler
Town Talk is a series on the Royal Examiner where we will introduce you to local entrepreneurs, businesses, non-profit leaders and political figures who influence Warren County. Topics will be varied but hopefully interesting. If you have an idea, topic or want to hear from someone in our community, let us know. Send your request to: news@RoyalExaminer.com
In this Town Talk, we’ll have a conversation with Warren County Sheriff Mark Butler.
Virginia uses genetic technology to combat COVID-19
~ State public health laboratory is one of the first in the nation to do this work ~
RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today (April 6, 2020) announced that the Department of General Services’ (DGS) Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) is one of the first public health labs in the nation to use genetic technology to help public health officials better understand and track the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen prevention and response efforts.
DCLS is using next-generation sequencing to genetically decode some Virginia samples that contain the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Looking at this genetic fingerprint can help public health officials track how the virus is changing and provide insights into how it is being transmitted.
“Advances in genetic sequencing allow us to track and analyze COVID-19 better than previous outbreaks,” said Governor Northam. “This innovative technology, combined with the work of our public health laboratory and epidemiologists around the Commonwealth, will help us understand the virus, how it spreads, and how it may change. And that will give us more tools to fight it.”
DCLS is working alongside the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and international public health and university partners using specialized lab equipment and computer software to piece together the genetic makeup of the virus found in COVID-19 patients. DCLS is working collaboratively to create a library that stores the information of not only the positive samples it identifies, but also those tested at private facilities, healthcare systems, and universities in Virginia.
Hidden in the genetic makeup of the virus are clues to its origin. Soon after the virus appeared in China, scientists used sequencing to tease out its genetic information and made that information available to the international public health community. As the virus travels from one person to another, it makes copies of itself and sometimes makes small genetic changes called mutations. Scientists can read these mutations like a road map, tracing how cases are related.
Next-generation sequencing generates enormous amounts of data, which is analyzed by specialized bioinformaticians at DCLS. The lab shares the data with public health officials and uploads it to GISAID, an online repository where genomic data is openly available to epidemiologists and virologists around the globe. Nextstrain, an online resource for scientists to visually track the genomics of the virus, creates diagrams that favor family trees showing the evolutionary relationships between different samples collected throughout the world.
“This genetic fingerprint gives us tremendous insight into this novel virus, helping us understand where Virginia cases originated and how they are being transmitted in our communities,” said DCLS Director Dr. Denise Toney. “Providing this information in real-time is unbelievably valuable for public health officials as they determine how to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in our communities.”
In Virginia, the sequences uploaded so far show evidence of multiple introductions of the virus into Virginia communities, suggesting that the emergence of COVID-19 is due to multiple distinct events. This is suggested by looking at the similarity of the virus in Virginia to the virus sequences obtained from Asian and European patients. There is also a clear indication of person-to-person spread within suspected COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Epidemiologists at the Virginia Department of Health can use these data during investigations of outbreaks in nursing homes and other settings to determine whether all of the cases originated from the same source or multiple sources,” said Virginia State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake.
For more information, visit the DGS website at dgs.virginia.gov, including this Next-Generation Sequencing in Virginia document that explains more about how DCLS is using genetic technology to combat COVID-19 in Virginia.
Governor Northam COVID-19 update briefing – April 6, 2020
May & June Election Clarification from Congressman Ben Cline
There has been a lot of misinformation spread regarding the effect of Gov. Northam’s stay-at-home order and how it will affect the upcoming local elections on May 5th and primary elections on June 9th. It is important that you know how to participate in Virginia’s elections, that is why I would like to share with you some information compiled by my office.
While the Governor’s order lasts until June 10th, in-person voting will still occur at normal polling locations on May 5th and June 9th. A spokesperson for the Governor’s office stated the order does not apply to “the operation of government,” which includes operating and participating in elections.
Additionally, absentee voting has been expanded to allow anyone with COVID-19 safety concerns to select “illness or disability” and receive a mail-in ballot. You can request your absentee ballot by clicking here.
Nothing in our democracy could be more important than transparent elections. It is your right to be fully informed about where and how to vote. I encourage you to forward this message to your friends and family who may be in the dark about the election process in the coming months.
As always, please be encouraged to reach out to my office if I can ever be of assistance
Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force, IRS-CI warn of potential COVID-19 economic impact payment scams
The Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations (IRS-CI) are warning taxpayers to be alert about possible scams relating to COVID-19 economic impact payments.
United States Attorneys Thomas T. Cullen and G. Zachary Terwilliger, and the Virginia State Police along with Kelly R. Jackson, Special Agent in Charge of the IRS-CI Washington DC Field Office, made the announcement today in an effort to prevent taxpayers in need from being victimized by criminals using the recently approved payments as an opportunity to commit a crime.
“During this time of crisis, scammers and thieves prey on those most vulnerable in our community in an attempt to personally benefit by stealing their money and personal identifying information,” Special Agent in Charge Jackson said today. “Please help us protect everyone in your community by telling family, friends and elderly neighbors to be on the lookout for these potential scams.”
“While most act selflessly and responsibly in a crisis like this, there are fraudsters out there who are attempting to scam and exploit good people,” said U.S. Attorney Terwilliger. “We are likely to see an uptick in government check scams tied to coronavirus-relief, including advanced-fee schemes promising government relief checks, student loan relief, and adjustments in other government benefits, such as increased social security payments. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
“As we have seen over the past few weeks, the worst among us are finding new ways to exploit a global pandemic and prey upon the vulnerable,” said U.S. Attorney Cullen. “Americans need to be extremely vigilant in protecting their personal, financial, and tax information. Assume all unsolicited phone calls and emails regarding IRS or COVID-19 refunds and are potentially fraudulent. Do not respond and report them to law enforcement.”
In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 economic impact payments will be on their way. For most Americans, this will be a direct deposit into your bank account. For the unbanked individuals who have traditionally received tax refunds via paper check, they will receive their economic impact payment through the mail.
Scammers may try to get you to sign over your check to them or get you to “verify” your filing information in order to steal your money. Your personal information could then be used to file false tax returns in an identity theft scheme. Because of this, everyone receiving a COVID-19 economic impact payment is at risk.
Special Agent in Charge Jackson offers the following information and tips to spot a scam and understand how the COVID-19 related economic impact payments will be issued.
• The IRS will deposit your payment into the direct deposit account you previously provided on your tax return (or, in the alternative, send you a paper check).
• The IRS will NOT call and ask you to verify your payment details. Do NOT give your bank account, debit account, or PayPal account information to anyone – even if someone claims it’s necessary to get your check. It’s a scam.
• If you receive a call, do NOT engage with scammers, even if you want to tell them that you know it’s a scam. Just hang up.
• If you receive texts or emails claiming that you can get your money faster by sending personal identifying information or clicking on links, delete these texts and emails. Do NOT click on any links in those texts or emails.
• Reports are swirling about bogus checks. If you receive a “check” in the mail now, it’s a scam. It will take the Treasury a few more weeks to mail out the COVID-19 economic impact payments. If you receive a “check” for an odd amount (especially one with cents), or a check that requires you to verify the check online or by calling a number, it’s a scam.
• Remember, the federal government will not ask you to pay anything upfront to get a legitimate benefit. No fees. No charges. Anyone who asks for an up-front payment for a promised benefit is a scammer.
The Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force: https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdva/covid-19-fraud
Western Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Baudinet, USAVAW.COVID19@usdoj.gov or 540-278-1494.
Eastern Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kaitlin G. Cooke, Kaitlin.Cooke@usdoj.gov or 804-819-5416.
To report a COVID-19 fraud scheme or suspicious activity, contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) by calling the NCDF Hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or sending an email to email@example.com.
For more information, visit the IRS website at www.irs.gov/coronavirus
FBI at: https://www.ic3.gov or 804-261-1044.
To report fraudulent activity to the Virginia State Police, Virginians can contact the Virginia Fusion Center (VFC) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For continuing information on the COVID-19 virus and the federal response, check https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
COVID-19 meeting restrictions lead to 2nd EDA grand jury extension
Contacted by phone, Rockingham County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Parker confirmed that Judge Clark Ritchie had extended the term of the Warren County Special Grand Jury impaneled to explore potential criminality tied to the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) civil litigation.
That extension is for six months and came as the grand jury’s first extension was coming to an end Tuesday, March 31. The EDA special grand jury was empaneled shortly after the EDA civil litigation was filed on March 26, 2019. Its first six-month term was extended another six months in October 2019.
Parker said the newest six-month extension comes from an “abundance of caution” both legally and medically.
Due to restrictions on public gatherings ordered by Governor Ralph Northam as part of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s emergency management response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, what have been described as non-essential court functions have joined other enterprises deemed “non-essential” in the private sector in being put on hold at least through much of April. Consequently, it was decided it was unsafe for the grand jury to continue meeting in this pandemic emergency response environment.
In this fluid medical and legal environment, it is uncertain when the EDA Special Grand Jury will be able to meet again. However, Parker said he believes once those meetings begin, it will not take anywhere near six months for the grand jury to complete its business.
“Our goal is to conclude as soon as possible,” Parker said.
Following the recusal from EDA legal matters of Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell and his entire staff in the wake of his November 2019 election, Parker was appointed to handle criminal indictments stemming from alleged EDA financial improprieties discovered by a forensic audit commissioned by Warren County on behalf of the EDA in September 2018.
The EDA civil litigation is now seeking recovery of $21.3 million from 15 defendants, including former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and two real estate companies she is alleged to have used to misdirect EDA assets to her own benefit.
In a series of filings by the EDA grand jury, McDonald now faces a total of 34 financial felony charges. Also indicted criminally on fewer charges has been a tight circle around McDonald, including her husband Samuel North, her former EDA Administrative Assistant Michelle “Missy” Henry, and former EDA small business loan recipient and B&G Goods proprietor William Lambert. At the time of his business relationship with the EDA Lambert is purported to have been in a relationship with a McDonald sister.
Criminal charges against another McDonald associate, Donald Poe, were dropped by Parker due to an approaching January perjury trial date he was not prepared for with his late 2019 appointment and the mountain of paperwork filed in relation to the EDA civil and criminal cases – estimated at or around a million pages of documentation.
However, as he noted at the time, Parker can refile the criminal indictments against Poe if he feels the evidence so warrants. Poe’s perjury charges related to his testimony to the EDA Special Grand Jury regarding his business ties to McDonald.
The next EDA criminal case hearing dates are scheduled for April 17. Parker said he should have more information on how things will be proceeding forward within the coming week.
A federal grand jury has also been impaneled in Harrisonburg related to the EDA financial allegations and civil litigation. On April 16, 2019, agents from the FBI and Virginia State Police searched and seized documents and materials from the EDA’s Kendrick Lane offices, including the executive director’s office that had been cordoned off and locked down since McDonald’s December 20, 2018 resignation under increasing scrutiny by the investigative auditing firm Cherry Bekaert and her EDA Board of Directors. However, the federal grand jury has yet to issue any indictments from its investigation.