On Friday afternoon, September 21, Shenandoah District Supervisor Tom Sayre filed a $25,000 defamation lawsuit against Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Director Jennifer McDonald.
The suit filed in Warren County General District Court alleges McDonald utilized Royal Examiner reporter Roger Bianchini, among others, “in attempting to frame Tom” for a June 2017 act of vandalism at her home. Bianchini’s name appears six times in the Sayre suit’s 34-point Bill of Particulars tracing the theory and alleged actions at the lawsuit’s base, while Royal Examiner Editor Norma Jean Shaw’s name is cited once, as is Warren County Sheriff Daniel McEathron’s.
The presence of both Bianchini and Shaw’s names in the civil complaint leading to the likelihood they will be called as witnesses complicates Royal Examiner’s coverage of this story. We have decided to proceed with internal interviews regarding the allegations made about Royal Examiner staff involvement in Sayre’s civil filing, with editorial board review of the resulting information to be published under a group Royal Examiner byline.
While Bianchini and Shaw have elected to minimize their public response at this point in time, both made it clear that they dispute Sayre’s allegations about their respective roles in alleged events laying the foundation of Sayre’s civil defamation suit. Elaboration will follow below as appropriate upon approval of the Royal Examiner Editorial Board.
Shaw’s involvement is cited as a late August 2017 telephoned warning to Sayre that he was being set up to be charged in the alleged vandalism incident at McDonald’s home – it is a conversation Shaw told Royal Examiner colleagues she has no recollection of having with Sayre.
Also named in the suit as spreading negative information about Sayre related to an alleged plot to discredit the supervisor is Warren County Sheriff Daniel McEathron – “On or about August 1, 2017, the Warren County Sheriff Danny McEathron told a friend of Tom’s to ‘stay away from Tom Sayre’ because he was ‘trouble’,” Sayre’s filing states.
There is no elaboration on how that alleged warning relates to Sayre’s allegation of a plot to besmirch his name related to inquiries into the EDA’s workforce housing project. However, Sayre presents it as a piece of a puzzle indicating a widespread word-of-mouth effort targeting him as a criminal conspirator in what his suit calls a “faux crime” at McDonald’s home property.
Sayre bases his lawsuit on the idea that McDonald attempted to utilize long-time local reporter Bianchini, among others including it appears the Warren County sheriff, in an attempt to discredit him for past tough questions he asked regarding the EDA’s workforce housing project. According to his lawsuit, Sayre’s tough questioning dates to a joint county board-EDA work session of June 6, 2017, called by Fork District Supervisor Archie Fox.
“Defendant (McDonald) was aware that Tom (as Sayre is described throughout the filing) was continuing to investigate the questionable transaction,” Sayre’s lawsuit states about issues surrounding the workforce housing project.
Perhaps ironically, for at least two months prior to June 6, 2017 when Sayre states his tough questioning on the workforce housing project began, Bianchini was Royal Examiner’s lead reporter in forwarding myriad tough questions about the workforce housing project, including its initially unexplained gifted/non-gifted status involving property previously owned by McDonald’s aunt and uncle, Mr. And Mrs. Walter Campbell; and for as many as seven months prior to June 2017, Bianchini wrote a series of stories forwarding hard questions about the stated parameters of the EDA’s ITFederal project at the Avtex site.
- Workforce housing ‘gift’ is no more – EDA plans purchase instead
- Feds OK ‘Dollar Special’ on first Avtex property sale
- A ‘Perfect Storm’ of silence raises questions about 1st Avtex client
Yet Sayre asserts McDonald chose to utilize a reporter known to ask hard questions about EDA projects to frame him for doing the same.
The toughest question asked by anyone about the workforce housing project – why the property was initially gifted by McDonald’s aunt and uncle, then announced it would have to be purchased by the EDA at an inflated price due to a failure to meet a previously undisclosed developmental deadline – was eventually explained by the August 7, 2017 announcement of the previously-undisclosed involvement of regional developer the Aikens Group. That involvement, according to the EDA dated to a 2014 Aikens Group commitment to purchase the workforce housing property from the Campbells at an agreed-upon price – and is elaborated on in this linked story. EDA unveils ‘silent partner’ in workforce housing project – the Aikens Group
The next tough question, heretofore unasked publicly by Sayre or anyone we are aware of, might be – when is the Aikens Group or anyone going to begin development of what remains a still-unrealized workforce housing project targeting young professionals considering entry-level positions in this community?
But on the alleged defamation of Shenandoah District Supervisor Tom Sayre by Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Jennifer McDonald there is more.
Much of Sayre’s defamation scenario revolves around a criminal misdemeanor charge against McDonald of filing a false police report regarding an alleged stone-throwing vandalism incident at her home on July 15, 2017. McDonald was charged by the Virginia State Police on July 13, 2018, two days before the statute of limitations on filing a misdemeanor warrant in that case expired. A trial date of October 31 has been set in that case.
The misdemeanor case against McDonald revolves around the belief she told a previously unnamed individual about the vandalism incident several hours before it was reported on Thursday, June 15, 2017. Sayre’s lawsuit identifies Bianchini as the unnamed individual McDonald is believed by authorities to have told details of the stone-throwing vandalism at her home several hours before she reported it at 9:02 p.m., Thursday, June 15, 2017.
McDonald’s defamatory statements alleged in Sayre’s filing include her telling Bianchini of a “note” that Sayre’s lawsuit states “she intentionally left in her front yard” that “contained a list of crimes that (McDonald) wanted the police to believe were intended to be committed against her in the future.”
“Defendant confirmed to Mr. Bianchini in this discussion that one of the numbers listed was that of Tom and that she believed that Tom was involved in the crime (Bold in context). Her clear intent in speaking to Mr. Bianchini was to the have the newspaper (grammar in context) disseminate this false information framing Tom for the fictitious crime.”
It is noteworthy considering the above supposition about motive, that Bianchini has never publicly mentioned, nor attached Sayre’s name to any Royal Examiner story regarding any incident or alleged incident at McDonald’s home or anywhere else.
However, Sayre’s civil suit alleges that “defamatory statements regarding Tom were seen or heard by numerous residents of Warren County, including, but not limited to, Mr. Bianchini (and everyone he told), the Sheriff of Warren County (and related police staff of Warren County and the Town of Front Royal), and Greg Drescher.”
Drescher, superintendent of Warren County Public Schools, was at the time chairman of the EDA Board of Directors. Drescher appeared with McDonald at the joint county supervisors-EDA work session of June 6, 2017, during which Sayre asserts questions he asked set the stage for McDonald’s alleged plot to frame him for what he states was a fictitious crime.
As for “everyone he told” about his off-the-record conversations with McDonald about incidents targeting her or EDA property, Bianchini estimates he told very few people – likely single digits – any detail of those conversations; and that they were, for the most part, professional news associates with whom the information was shared in confidence.
Sayre’s suit states, “While Tom was not immediately aware of what the Defendant had done, in the weeks after June 15, 2017, he noticed certain people were beginning to treat him differently, including Greg Drescher – Chair of the EDA.”
The lawsuit does not elaborate on how Drescher, or anyone else for that matter, treated Sayre before or after June 15, 2017.
Sayre cites an August 4, 2017 phone interview with Kenneth Pullen, a private investigator hired by McDonald to look into what she said was happening at her property, as well as a May 18, 2017, EDA office break-in. “Though he was being questioned as if he was a suspect and he had no idea why, Tom candidly answered all questions,” Sayre’s lawsuit states without detailing those questions.
Pain and suffering
As to the punishment of $25,000 Sayre is seeking in defamation damages, the General District Court Clerk’s Office confirmed that is the maximum amount obtainable in a civil filing in that court. In seeking that compensation 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 (Sayre has publicly stated that he is currently employed as human resource director at Seton Home School), 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.”
He said/He said
Bianchini denies that McDonald ever told him she believed Sayre was involved in the alleged vandalism at her home or that Sayre’s phone number was found on a “note” Sayre believes McDonald planted on her own property to implicate him in a staged crime. Bianchini also noted (pun intended) that he has no recollection of ever telling anyone that McDonald told him either of those things.
In fact, Bianchini said he conveyed this information to Sayre in the hallway of the Warren County Government Center following a board of supervisors meeting several months ago when the supervisor inquired about the topic.
“He came up to me and asked what Jennifer McDonald had told me regarding a ‘note’ he believes implicated him and was planted by McDonald on her property. I told him his name was never mentioned to me as a suspect. I gave him a little more detail than I care to go into publicly at this time,” the reporter told his colleagues at Royal Examiner – colleagues who have heard that additional detail in confidence.
Bianchini also said that while McDonald did eventually express suspicions to him about possible suspects, NEITHER of those suspects was Tom Sayre.
Information about the alleged series of incidents at her home were confided to Bianchini as a result of a June 5 conversation about a recent verbal altercation between the reporter and McDonald’s husband, whom Bianchini has considered a friend dating to his sportswriting days covering the Front Royal Men’s Softball League in the early to mid-1990’s. The information was presented as a possible explanation for her husband’s uncharacteristic display of hostility toward the reporter since she explained the alleged trespass incidents at her property usually occurred shortly after one of the reporter’s articles presenting EDA business in a negative light appeared on the Royal Examiner website.
Bianchini notes that McDonald never asked him to alter the tone of or stop writing stories about EDA projects, surmising their publication might eventually help apprehend a suspect.
Now, oddly perhaps, it appears she is that suspect – though exactly how that relates to Sayre’s defamation case remains to be determined.
Town, County, EDA join forces with commercial realty community
At 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, February 19, members of the local real estate brokers community gathered at the Kendrick Lane Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development office for a “Commercial Property Open House.
After some breakfast snacks provided by the EDA through the Shenandoah Valley Golf Club’s catering service and a briefing by EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons on economic incentives available locally and through the state economic development partnership, the group representing 10 realty companies, accompanied by EDA, Town and County officials began the tour close by.
First to be viewed of 28 properties were two vacant offices in the EDA office complex at 400 Kendrick Lane. Then it was on to the Town Trolley for a foray into the adjacent Royal Phoenix Business Park’s 117 vacant acres before heading into the Route 522/340 North Commercial and Industrial Corridor.
Royal Examiner caught up with Parsons and Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson shortly after noon following the Open House tour’s conclusion back in Front Royal. In fact, Parsons noted that of the 28 EDA overseen properties on the tour, all but seven were in the town limits.
On the Town side, Community Development Director Felicia Hart had taken the point, working with EDA Board Vice-Chairman Jeff Browne to propel the Commercial Property Open House forward. Following Hart’s January 29 termination with several other Town staff and department heads as part of the interim town manager’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal, Browne worked with Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick to see things moved forward on the logistical side.
Planning Director Taryn Logan represented Warren County and Chris Brock, who identified himself as Interim Planning and Zoning Director, was present for Front Royal. Parsons and Henderson acknowledged the contribution of town staff in preparation of a properties’ booklet for the open house and the provision of the trolley for the tour.
“Everybody’s working together,” we observed to Parsons of the joint EDA-Town-County driven interaction with local commercial realtors.
“Yes, as always,” the EDA executive director replied.
“Or at least ‘almost’ always,” we suggested of certain litigious efforts of one participating municipal partner. However, Parsons declined to take the bait, preferring to accentuate the positives of the day. So, we asked for his assessment of the day and its impetus.
“The idea behind the event was to bring together the Blue Ridge Association of Realtors members and take them on a tour of 28 properties here in Front Royal and Warren County that we think are good, viable properties for both commercial and industrial development. So, we looked at 21 properties in town and seven outside of town.
“I think we saw a good variety of buildings, vacant ground that could be used for a variety of purposes. I think the realtors appreciated the information, and I think it was a good partnership effort between the Town and the EDA. I want to thank Chris Brock and Alfredo Velasquez for their help in collating and binding the materials. And Chris’s expertise was a big part of the day as he was able to talk to the group about planning and zoning and certain properties in town.
“Taryn Logan was also a very valuable asset to help explain the planning and zoning in the county and some of the history of the properties.
“And a lot of the realtors that were on the tour, they knew a great deal about some of these properties because they’d either bought or sold them before; or had dealt with them in the past, so knew the history. There was a lot of knowledge on the bus which was shared amongst the group and hopefully, it’ll lead to some sales for some of the properties here in town – and out in the county,”
Parsons concluded what he believes was a morning well spent.
Apparently the private sector participants agreed. A sign out sheet was punctuated with “Comments” including “Great Event”, “Good Idea”, “Thank you so much!!”, “Wonderful – very informative” and “Next Year?”
We asked Parsons about his pre-tour briefing on some financial incentives available through the Town, EDA and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP).
“I know a lot of times the real estate community in states across the nation may not be as in tune with the local and state incentives that these job developers’ programs have to offer. So, I was hoping to make them aware of what is out there for them in that regard … Because if you’re a realtor and you are dealing with someone and maybe there’s a ten or twenty thousand dollar gap in being able to close the deal, if you can bring the Virginia Jobs Investment Program incentive to the table, or the tech zone incentive here locally to the table, it could be a deal closer for someone,” Parsons observed.
And deal closings on some commercial properties are what the EDA, its municipal partners, and private sector realtors are all looking to make happen.
EDA presents budget proposal to Board of Supervisors; delinquent taxes from contractors
On Tuesday, February 11 at the evening work session of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, the EDA Board and staff presented its budget proposal to get through the final 3 1/2 months of this fiscal year and to continue into FY 2021.
Also included on the agenda was a discussion with Building official David Beahm and Commissioner of the Revenue Sherry Sours on the payment of delinquent taxes and business license fees by contractors prior to issuance of building permits.
County Administrator Doug Stanley discussed the Department of Environmental Quality Financial Assurance requirements. Also, Stanley, along with County Attorney Jason Ham, discussed the management and lease agreements of the Front Royal Golf Club.
See the presentations, including discussion of the Town’s $8 million-plus debt to the EDA on the new police station and the status of the Front Royal Golf Club in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
EDA report to County – long-time annual auditor withdraws from lagging 2018 audit process
During one of six operational updates from entities with which it is either directly or indirectly involved at its Tuesday, February 4 meeting, the Warren County Board of Supervisors got what Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Doug Parson called “bad” and “very disappointing” news.
That news was that long-time EDA auditor Yount-Hyde-Barbour had withdrawn from the EDA’s 2018 audit process. That process is running considerably behind as the EDA tries to get to the bottom of the final year of a number of years during which a contracted financial investigation by Cherry Bekaert, known for its forensic audit discoveries of criminal financial behavior, alleged a number of years of financial improprieties within EDA operations.
The Cherry Bekaert investigation conducted from mid-September 2018 into the spring of 2019 has resulted in a $21.3-million EDA civil litigation against what currently stands at 14 human and business entity defendants and multiple financial felony indictments by a special grand jury empaneled to investigate potential criminality tied to the EDA civil litigation. At the center of both the civil and criminal cases is former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.
It was Yount-Hyde-Barbour that was contracted by the EDA to conduct its annual audits during most, if not all of the years during which the EDA financial scandal is believed to have occurred. In recent months retired Warren County Finance Director Carolyn Stimmel and Heather Tweedie of the auditing firm Hottel-Willis have been pouring through the EDA’s 2018 financial records trying to ascertain what EDA assets went where, how, to what purpose and most importantly, were those purposes legitimate and authorized by the EDA Board of Directors.
Yount-Hyde-Barbour had been expected to take the result of Stimmel and Tweedie’s work to belatedly conduct their annual audit for 2018. Completion of that audit has been termed crucial to the
EDA’s future ability to function as it attempts to traverse the operational aftermath of the financial crimes alleged to have occurred under McDonald’s decade of executive leadership of the EDA.
One EDA civil case defendant’s attorney wondered aloud during a past motions hearing that if their client was a defendant for the financial actions alleged against them, why the EDA auditor that had rubber stamped the EDA’s finances annually through the years of alleged embezzlements and misdirection of assets, wasn’t also a defendant.
Could Yount-Hyde-Barbour’s withdrawal from the 2018 audit process be an indicator of potential legal issues between the auditor and the EDA? In response to media questions Sands Anderson attorney Dan Siegel, present with lead EDA civil case attorney Cullen Seltzer for a closed session discussion with County officials of the EDA’s civil case landscape, said only that EDA counsel continues to explore potential legal liability in many directions.
VDOT Revenue Sharing
In other business Tuesday, after a week’s delay to allow new supervisors to gather additional information, the county board unanimously approved the County’s contribution to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Revenue Sharing Program. It was explained that the program that runs through multiple municipal fiscal year budgets allows involved municipalities to get a 50% revenue match from the State on needed and desired road improvements throughout the county.
Numbers presented projected the County’s contribution in the coming FY 2021 budget at $250,000. It was a number projected to remain constant in FY 2021 through FY 2024. Six total involved road project costs were cited at $2.9-million over a number of years, with a 25% County contribution total of $753,312.50 and a 25% contribution from involved Sanitary District and POA fees at $703,313.50.
Short-term rental permit
By a 3-2 margin, a divided board approved a short-term rental Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for Stephen J. Aron Jr. despite some objections from neighbors in the gated River Ridge Property Owners Association. Tony Carter and Archie Fox cast the two dissenting votes.
Carter cited neighbor concerns about security issues tied to the applicant’s efforts to recoup some of his residential property improvement costs in purchasing what he said at the earlier public hearing was the run-down home of what he described as the less than conscientious previous occupants. In explaining her vote for the CUP, Delores Oates noted that renters wouldn’t be given the code to the gate, but would utilize a locked key box key to activate entry to the gated community.
Carter replied that, that solution still allowed entry and access of strangers to a community that many residents may have located to for the additional security provided by locked access available only to residents and their guests.
During the January public hearing it was noted in favor of the request that many short-term rental operations do quite a bit of vetting of guests. The applicant indicated he intended to be conscientious about those allowed to stay at the residence he and his family plan to spend a great deal of time at themselves.
In addition to the EDA, other operational updates the county received were from VDOT, RSW Jail, the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, Department of Social Services and the Town of Front Royal.
See a related story on the Town report; and see the full Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting – other than the 3-hour-plus closed session – in this Royal Examiner video:
Economic development proceeds amidst legal and Spotted Lanternfly threats
This reporter sat down with Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Vice-Chairman Jeff Browne and Executive Director Doug Parsons on Friday, January 31, to discuss the work they do amidst challenges they face in the aftermath of the financial scandal that developed during the executive leadership of Jennifer McDonald and a previous EDA board majority.
In what we hope is the first of at least monthly video interviews on EDA business and affairs, listen as Browne and Parsons describe how their time is budgeted as they continue the EDA’s work of business retention and recruitment in an environment of dueling civil litigations. They continue to offer an olive branch to the Front Royal Town Council to work together in good faith to determine exactly what the EDA owes the Town in allegedly misdirected EDA assets generated by Town taxpayers, as opposed to an increasingly expensive attorney-driven civil suit filed by the Town against its existing co-created EDA.
It is litigation, as is pointed out in the interview, in which town taxpayers face the unhappy task of funding both sides, as Town taxpayers for the plaintiff and as County taxpayers for the defendant.
And speaking of olive branches, Browne and Parsons conclude the interview by describing the economic threat presented by the expanding presence of the fruit-tree and grapevine feeding Spotted Lanternfly in Frederick County to our north; and how Warren County citizens and businesses can be on the alert to spot, report and mitigate early signs of the destructive bug’s presence in our county.
Watch the discussion in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Judge denies EDA civil suit defendants’ motions for removal from case
In a written ruling signed January 24 and filed in the Warren County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office on January 27, Judge Bruce D. Albertson denied a host of EDA civil litigation defense motions for removal from the case as alleged co-conspirators with central defendant, former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.
Among defendant attorneys involved in the December 12 motions hearing were those representing April Petty, Jesse Poe, Donald Poe and his Earth Right Energy (ERE) solar panel installation company, and ITFederal and its principal Truc “Curt” Tran.
The basis of those defense counsel arguments for dismissal of their clients from the civil case primarily revolved around the plaintiff’s notion of an overarching conspiracy that somehow links the various defendants to central figure and former EDA Executive Director McDonald; and that there are legally definable contractual breaches making those defendants individually liable for funds that came their way through McDonald.
At the December motions hearing christened “Groundhog Day” by one media rep present (guilty as charged) for the bulk of four-and-a-half-hours of repetitive legal arguments put forth by each defense attorney on essentially identical claims for removal of their clients from the civil case, lead plaintiff attorney Cullen Seltzer’s counter was briefer.
That was because Seltzer’s reply was essentially a one-response-fits-all argument. That response was that there did not have to have to be direct knowledge among all defendants of each interlocking conspiracy McDonald is alleged to having been a party to, for that conspiracy to exist to the benefit of separate defendants in separate transactions. Seltzer scoffed at the idea of McDonald as “a rogue tornado” distributing EDA assets to various defendants without a general common knowledge that something illegal was transpiring to each defendant’s benefit.
“I deny each Demurrer and Plea in Bar for the reasons cited by the plaintiff,” Judge Albertson wrote in his brief, three paragraph ruling.
However, the judge also ruled that a plaintiff claim of “Breach of Fiduciary Duty” against all defendants, cited only McDonald and her former Administrative Assistant Michelle Henry for such action.
“Plaintiff alleges that this count applies to all defendants due to the conspiracy count. The manner in which this count is written, however, names only Ms. Henry and Ms. McDonald as parties that have breached this duty. I find that his count does not apply to the other defendants as written in the Amended Complaint,” the judge ruled.
The judge also continued a decision on Earth Right Energy’s “Plea in Bar and separate Motion for Sanctions” based on other arguments heard December 12. There was disagreement between ERE attorney Ryan Huttar and EDA counsel on the validity of contracts between the EDA and ERE in amounts over $10,000, which is most, if not all involved contracts.
EDA counsel noted that any EDA transaction or contract over $10,000 had to be approved by the EDA Board of Directors, which EDA counsel stated did not happen in the Earth Right Energy cases. However, Earth Right attorney Huttar contended the company’s contracts, including a $27-million one with the Warren County Public School system negotiated while Greg Drescher was both an EDA board member and superintendent of schools, were legally binding.
It appears a decision on those arguments will require additional factual information to be brought to the court.
Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Meeting – January 24, 2019
The Economic Development Authority held their monthly Board of Directors meeting on January 24, 2020.
One of the topics was the sale of the Stokes Market (most recent the Main Street Market) to William Huck, owner of C&C Frozen Treats on Main Street in Front Royal. Huck has been trying to remodel the property he owns adjacent to C&C but because of costs higher than anticipated and issues with zoning and permitting, he has been exploring other options to open his newest business known as My Lagniappe – it’s a Louisiana expression that means ‘An extra or unexpected gift or benefit, such as that given to customers when they purchase something.’ If you know Huck, you know he always offers his customers a little lagniappe.
The solar panels on the roof of the EDA office building was also a point of discussions. The EDA is advertising for any party interested in purchasing the solar electric system currently stationed on top of the EDA Building at 400 Kendrick Lane, Front Royal.
The RSW Jail has said they are not interested in the solar panels. The cost of installation and unknown purchase price makes the project not cost effective.
Discussion also included workforce housing, the 2018 audit, Afton Inn renovations and the big one, running out of money by March.
Watch the EDA Board at work in this exclusive Royal Examiner video: