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.
EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne reacts to July civil litigation results ordering total of over $13.35 million paid to the County Economic Development Authority
As noted in our lead story on the “Warren Economic Development Authority” (EDA) versus Truc “Curt” Tran and his ITFederal LLC company civil liability case result (See: Jury awards WC EDA $11.9 million-plus in civil compensatory claims against ITFederal and Truc ‘Curt’ Tran), involved players on the plaintiff’s side deferred to current EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne for a reaction, not only to the Tran/ITFederal result, but a month in which four civil liability cases went the EDA’s way. After a day of reflection on this month’s civil liability trials, much of which he watched in the courtroom, often with other EDA board members, this is what Browne told Royal Examiner:
“As part of the Jennifer McDonald lawsuits, the EDA successfully sued six defendants this month in four civil jury trials and was awarded about $13 million in compensatory damages, $400,000 in punitive damages, and $75,000 in damages for statutory conspiracy. There will be additional civil trials in March 2023.
“The EDA’s main responsibility in these lawsuits is to recover assets that rightfully belong to the EDA and ultimately to the residents of Warren County. It’s a work in progress, but I’m pleased with the outcomes. Every defendant was found liable on multiple charges. Every defendant has to pay. A jury found that the EDA Board of Directors with oversight responsibility of Jennifer McDonald wasn’t negligent in retaining her as it took immediate steps after finding solid evidence of her misbehavior.
“But that isn’t the whole story. Members of the EDA Board were present on every day of every trial. We were impressed with the juries and Judge Albertson. Jury members listened attentively, took notes, and showed in their verdicts that they had a command of the facts in each case. Judge Albertson was fair to both sides of each case and did a good job of managing each trial. Prior members of the EDA Board, prior staff EDA members, a former county administrator, and former members of the Warren County Board of Supervisors all stepped up to testify and do their civic duty. We can be proud that our judicial system still works.
“The criminal process moves forward in other venues. In the meantime, some measure of justice is present in the jury verdicts in Warren County this month. For that, we are grateful.”
Coupled with the out-of-court “no-fault” settlement agreement with McDonald for an estimated $9 million in real estate assets, the courts have now ordered the return of $22 million to $23 million in assets to the EDA. At various points in the investigation into alleged embezzlement and misdirection of EDA assets between 2014 and 2018, the total involved amount has been cited from $21 million to $26 million. There have been significant legal fees involved, perhaps $6 million or more. But in the wake of this month’s results, it appears the EDA’s contracted civil counsel from the Sands Anderson law firm of Richmond are earning that money.
Asked for a reaction to the verdict, Tran and his attorney Gregory Melus declined comment. As noted in the above linked story on the verdict, Melus notified the court of his intention to file a motion to overturn the verdict as not supported by the evidence presented at trial, as have the other three involved civil case defense attorneys.
Jury awards WC EDA $11.9 million-plus in civil compensatory claims against ITFederal and Truc ‘Curt’ Tran
After five hours of deliberation beginning shortly after 9 a.m., at 3:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon, July 28, a Warren County Circuit Court civil case jury awarded the “Warren Economic Development Authority” (aka EDA, WC EDA, FR-WC EDA) a total of $11,919,313.38, plus some interest payments from defendants Truc “Curt” Tran and his ITFederal LLC company. The finding of liability against the defendants related to exchanges of money for Tran and ITFederals’ plan to develop a 30-acre parcel at the 148-acre Royal Phoenix Business Park portion of the former Avtex Superfund site in Front Royal. That seven-person civil case jury also dismissed all counterclaims by co-defendants Tran and ITFederal related to breach of contract and surrounding claims against the EDA.
However, the jury did not find the defendants liable on claims of Conspiracy and Fraud that could have led to significant punitive damages up to $350,000, or as high as triple the compensatory claim of $11.9 million if found guilty of statutory conspiracy indicating malice against the plaintiff. Tran was found liable on claims of Conversion, Unjust Enrichment, and Ultra Vires, the latter actions outside the authority of involved officials. ITFederal was found liable on claims Conversion, Unjust Enrichment, Ultra Vires, and Breach of Contract.
The breakdown of liability of the defendants was $1,499,986 against Tran, plus 3-1/4 years of interest on that amount accumulated since the March 2019 filing of the EDA civil actions against defendants alleged to have worked with former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald between 2014 and 2018 to defraud the EDA out of an estimated $21-million. The $11.9-million claim of compensatory damages against Tran and ITFederal was the largest single portion of the EDA civil liability actions for recovery of lost assets. With approval of a bankruptcy court judge, McDonald settled EDA claims against her in an out-of-court “no-fault” settlement for what was cited as $9 million in real estate assets.
From testimony over four days of trial in the Tran/ITFederal liability case that $1.499-million finding against Tran related to EDA payments made to Tran under the pretense it was front money that would be reimbursed to the EDA by a $1.5 million Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) grant that was never acquired, or even applied for.
The finding of liability for $10,419,327.38 against ITFederal revolved around the $8,419,327.38 balance of a $10-million loan/promissory note the EDA gave the company to begin development of the ITFederal parcel behind the EDA offices in the old Avtex Administration building off Kendrick Lane. As noted in previous stories (see LINKS at end of story) on testimony and evidence presented during the trial, ITFederal was presented to the EDA Board of Directors in 2015-16 by then Sixth District Congressman Robert Goodlatte as not really needing the loan. Past EDA board members Greg Drescher and Ron Llewellyn testified that Goodlatte suggested the loan as a public relations move to illustrate Virginia’s positive work with the private sector to redevelop a former federal Superfund “brownfield” site.
Consequently, despite the written-in 30-year payback loan term, EDA officials believed it was actually being done as a short-term public relations effort, and would be paid back in a matter of months when what they believed was an existing $140-million ITFederal contract with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) kicked in. A McDonald representation to her board that Tran would become an “anonymous donor” of $8-million to a proposed Criminal Justice Academy project then being worked on by the EDA, was seen as the start of that early repayment, the former EDA board members testified.
It appears this civil case jury, as three before it this month, have rejected a defense theory of the case asserting that the defendants were unwitting victims of McDonald’s alleged lies concerning the movement of EDA assets, just as the EDA was victimized. Plaintiff attorneys from the Sands Anderson law firm of Richmond, Va., countered those arguments by asking the jury to “follow the money” to see who benefited from the misinformation they allege McDonald was giving the EDA board, as well as EDA auditors.
During the previous morning session on Wednesday, the two sides presented their final witnesses: for the defense Mark Viola, proprietor of Viola Engineering, who did geo-technical work for Tran on the ITFederal site regarding construction delays related to underground discoveries of old utility piping and substances; and in plaintiff rebuttal to some of the previous day’s defense assertions, former County and EDA attorney Dan Whitten.
Late Wednesday, the court heard motions from both sides to strike the opposition claims against their clients. After listening to extensive arguments from both sides, Judge Albertson denied all motions to strike claims by either side, preferring as he has reviewing similar motions in earlier EDA civil liability cases this month, to allow the jury to make the decision on the substance of each sides’ claims against the other. After adjourning to dinner of pizza ordered to the courthouse for them around 7 p.m., the jury returned at 7:25 p.m. to say they preferred to go home and begin deliberations Thursday morning, which Judge Albertson agreed to.
As the three previous defense attorneys have following findings in the EDA’s favor this month, Tran/ITFederal counsel Gregory Melus notified the court he would file a motion to overturn the jury verdict. Those motions appear based on a defense contention evidence produced at trial was inadequate to justify conviction. A 30/30/10 day filing and response time schedule was set, though plaintiff counsel indicated if Melus needed additional time due to scheduling conflicts, that would not be a problem.
With motions to overturn on the table, counsel for both sides declined comment following Thursday’s verdict. Current EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne, who observed much of the trial along with board members Jim Wolfe, Scott Jenkins, and Greg Harold, indicated that after speaking with counsel and some consideration he might have a response for the media shortly. See that EDA response in related story posted when available.
EDA civil liability defendant ‘Curt’ Tran on witness stand for over 4-1/2 hours as trial heads into final day
Tuesday, July 26, the third day of the “Warren Economic Development Authority” versus Truc “Curt” Tran and ITFederal LLC civil liability and counter-suit case was highlighted by the defendant’s 4-hours-and-37-minutes on the witness stand. That time started with a 2-hour-25-minute near monologue on direct examination, followed by 1-hour-58-minutes of sometimes contentious cross-examination by EDA co-counsel Lee Byrd and a fortuitously briefer 14 minutes of redirect examination by defense attorney Gregory Melus. On direct examination, Tran recounted his life story, beginning as an 11-to-12-year-old refugee to America in the wake of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, leading into his work in data storage with the federal government and private sector, culminating with his efforts to develop a federally funded data center and import/export business in Front Royal and Warren County.
During that direct examination, Tran managed to recount a series of circumstances involving not only former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and a lack of supervisory EDA Board of Directors oversight of McDonald, but also shifting federal program guidelines, former President Barack Obama, and failed 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton among reasons his projects here failed. The latter two involved a failure of the federal government during Obama’s presidential tenure to sign into law the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an international trade agreement that might have helped facilitate the import-export business Tran had hoped to create with his ITFederal company involving the cattle farm production of beef on acreage purchased off Happy Creek Road.
During a sometimes explosive cross-examination, Tran conditionally insinuated that several previous witnesses may have perjured themselves during testimony regarding circumstances of his agreements on the ITFederal project. Those witnesses in the defendant’s crosshairs of scrutiny included former EDA and County Attorney Dan Whitten, former EDA board member Ron Llewellyn, and Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) official Debbie Melvin.
In fact, Tran appeared to flirt with accusing former U.S. 6th District of Virginia Congressman Robert Goodlatte of, if not perjury, since he was not called as a witness for either side, but potential past lying were testimony from other witnesses, including Whitten, Llewellyn, and Greg Drescher, to be proven true regarding Goodlatte’s lobbying for Tran/ITFederal to receive the $10-million EDA loan for the Avtex site ITFederal project on a short-term basis as a positive public relations initiative for Virginia.
“I never say short-term, I didn’t say that – did he say that?” Tran wondered of multiple witnesses saying Goodlatte presented the $10-million dollar loan for the ITFederal project as a public relations effort to attract more business interest in Virginia rather than a loan Tran and his company actually needed to achieve their planned Avtex site federal data center development. With one defense witness remaining to be called Wednesday, one might wish Goodlatte was that witness to address that question, though he has not appeared on a prospective witness list.
Prior to sending the jury home at 7:02 p.m. Tuesday, Judge Bruce D. Albertson told that jury he anticipated deliberations to be handed over to them no later than early-to-mid-afternoon on Wednesday. Those deliberations involve an EDA base compensatory damage claim of over $ 11 million against Tran/ITFederal, as well as potential punitive damages up to $300,000 or more were the jury to find Tran and his company guilty of statutory conspiracy to defraud the EDA out of assets obtained under alleged fraudulent circumstances. Testimony indicated the defendants’ counterclaim at a base of approximately $4 million, with more at stake punitively as well.
EDA vs. Tran/ITFederal civil liability and counterclaim trial heads into third day with defense poised to call final series of witnesses
On Monday, July 25, the plaintiff “Warren Economic Development Authority” (aka EDA, WC EDA, FR-WC EDA) completed presentation of its case for liability for both compensatory and punitive damages during the morning session of its case against Truc “Curt” Tran and his ITFederal LLC company. Plaintiff counsel from the Sands Anderson law firm of Richmond, Virginia, called one witness after opening the day’s evidence with edited video of portions of two depositions they took from Tran, the first on October 8, 2021, the second three weeks later on November 1, 2021.
Both Tran’s responses to questions by plaintiff counsel at deposition and the testimony of the fourth and final plaintiff witness, former EDA Board of Directors member, Chairman, and Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Greg Drescher were presented to further the EDA contention Tran was an active participant and co-conspirator with former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald in an effort to defraud the EDA into believing he had the means for follow through on promised development of 30 acres at the 147-acre Royal Phoenix portion of the former Avtex Superfund site. Primary among that fraudulent behavior according to the EDA theory of the case was the assertion ITFederal had secured a $140-million contract with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), as well as accessing a Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) grant related to job creation. Evidence indicated neither was true.
Drescher reiterated testimony from former EDA attorney Dan Whitten on the trial’s first day last Friday concerning former U.S. Virginia Sixth District Representative Robert “Bob” Goodlatte’s efforts to justify a $10-million loan to Tran and ITFederal as a positive public relations move, despite his assertion that Tran and his company didn’t really need the loan. Drescher added that due to the nature of how the loan was presented as a show of cooperation between Virginia EDA’s and the private sector, he had believed the money would be returned to the EDA in a number of months, rather than years. That belief led to acceptance of the idea brought to the EDA board by its executive director that Tran would be an “anonymous donor” in development of a police training academy to the tune of $8 million dollars that then-Sheriff Daniel McEathron was interested in developing here.
However, defense counsel Gregory Melus pointed out to Drescher on cross examination that the terms of the EDA-financed $10-million loan to Tran clearly states that the loan had a 30-year payback term written into it. During a 55-minute cross examination, Melus repeatedly pressed Drescher on the lack of oversight provided by the EDA Board of Directors that he claims made his client a victim, rather than a player in any conspiracy alleged by the EDA regarding the failed promises of development creating as many as 600 quality jobs related to a government contracted data center on the 30-acre ITFederal parcel at Avtex.
That fact, among other shortcomings he cited in direct evidence against his client, led Melus to move to strike the plaintiff’s case on the majority of claims against Tran and his company following the resting of the EDA case. However, after hearing both sides arguments in that regard, Judge Bruce D. Albertson overruled the defense motion to strike the plaintiff claims against Tran and his company. As it has in this month’s previous EDA civil liability trials, the court expressed the opinion that the plaintiff evidence presented was sufficient to let the jury decide on its weight, rather than the court midway thru the trial.
With the case thrown to it, the defense opened its witness testimony with a financial investor in ITFederal’s parent company American Commonwealth Regional Center (ACRC). Quincy Zhao testified that he invested $100,000 in ACRC due to its economic development plans related to the EB-5 Visa Program. The program, as previously noted, encourages foreign nationals investment in economic development in the U.S. in exchange for green cards for investor’s families. Zhao explained that wealthy investors from the four primary nations invested in the program, China, Vietnam, India, and Korea (he did not note a north or south), among others, often used the program to educate their children in America’s school system, particularly at the higher educational levels. Zhao noted that eventually Front Royal-Warren County were ruled ineligible to qualify for the EB-5 Visa Program, creating issues with ACRC and ITFederal being able to fund the project. The EB-5 Visa funding was believed still on the table when Goodlatte made his initial assertions to the EDA board about the viability of ITFederal to be a major job creator for this community.
Former County and EDA attorney Blair Mitchell was the defense’s second witness, first of two successive by remote hook up. Mitchell, Dan Whittens predecessor, was queried on his knowledge of difficulties in marketing redevelopment of the Avtex property as a developmentally limited, federal Superfund environmental reclamation project, compared to other EDA industrial and commercial properties. Having retired in April 2016, he was also questioned on his knowledge of McDonald’s work as EDA executive director and the EDA’s recruiting of ITFederal as the first commercial development project at the Avtex site.
In response to a question about whether McDonald or anyone with ITFederal had qualified the NRC $140-million contract as an IDIQ (Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity) federal contract, Mitchell replied, “No”. As plaintiff counsel has pointed out the IDIQ contract simply qualifies a company to bid on future federal contracts, guaranteeing nothing. In Tran’s second deposition video, asked about ACRC’s actual financial benefit from the $140 million NRC IDIQ contract, Tran replied $5,000. However, defense counsel has pointed to notations of “IDIQ” in some documents related to the ITFederal proposal to the EDA on Avtex Lot 6.
The defense’s second remote hook-up witness was James I. Marasco. After reviewing records of the EDA between 2014-17/18, from his home base in Rochester, New York, Marasco supported the defense contention that during that time period the EDA had very poor financial oversight and safeguards in place to prevent the type of financial misdeeds McDonald has been accused of. Marasco’s particular field of expertise is forensic auditing, he noted during direct examination.
Before dismissing the jury shortly after 5 p.m., Judge Albertson told them to expect to be in court later on Tuesday, to 6 p.m. or longer, despite the fact the case is still proceeding ahead of schedule. Due to a trip out of state for a real estate closing, final plaintiff witness and former EDA board member Ron Llewellyn is likely to open testimony at the trial on Tuesday prior to the defense calling its last series of witnesses, including defendant Truc “Curt” Tran. Defense counsel Melus has pointed out to the jury his client is not running away from questions about his role in the aborted ITFederal project at Avtex, as McDonald did in invoking her 5th Amendment right not to respond to questions at risk of self-incrimination during earlier testimony as a plaintiff witness.
First day of $11-million EDA vs. ‘Curt’ Tran civil liability trial concludes
Following opening arguments and the start of the plaintiff’s case, including presentation of its paper trail of nearly 50 Exhibits, we counted 48, it contends will illustrate Truc “Curt” Tran was not an unwitting but active accomplice of former “Warren Economic Development Authority” Executive Director Jennifer McDonald in acquiring a total of $11,913,308 in EDA loans and payments under false pretenses, a Warren County Circuit Court civil case jury was released for the weekend at 4:23 p.m. Friday afternoon, July 22. Attorneys, the media, and a few observers followed the jury out of the courtroom and courthouse two minutes later.
The evidentiary portion of the plaintiff’s case, which included its first three witnesses, hit a snag when lead EDA attorney Cullen Seltzer announced the plaintiff’s next evidence, a video of portions of a deposition interview of defendant “Curt” Tran. Defense counsel Gregory Melus objected to the introduction of that evidence. After the jury was sent out of the courtroom, Melus told the court he had not had time to review the video, having only seen a transcript of those sections of the deposition of Tran by plaintiff counsel. He also objected to the video being introduced, as opposed to the text of the deposition which the plaintiff had originally sent him.
After hearing from both sides, Judge Bruce D. Albertson overruled the defense objection to introduction of the video, but offered to recess the trial to Monday to allow Tran’s attorney to review the estimated hour-long video. Subsequent discussion with counsel indicated the plaintiff may complete presentation of its case Monday. Asked by the court if he was able to open his case at some point Monday, could he complete it by Wednesday, Melus replied in the affirmative. With that positive time-frame looming, if possibly with some longer days to achieve it early in the week, Judge Albertson allowed the perhaps unexpectedly early adjournment on the trials opening day. With the jury dismissed with instructions to avoid discussion, media or social media accounts of the case, and no further matters for consideration by the attorneys, court was recessed at 4:25 p.m. until 9 a.m. Monday.
Prior to that adjournment, in addition to introduction of its paper trail, EDA attorneys called three witnesses. They were in order of appearance, former Warren County and EDA attorney Dan Whitten, Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) Assistant Director of Accounts Solutions Debbie Melvin, and Jennifer McDonald. Whitten was on the stand for over three hours, 1-hour-38-minutes on direct, and 1-hour-43-minutes on cross examination as counsel for both sides attempted to paint their contrasting evidentiary “roadmaps” of the case.
And as in the three earlier EDA civil liability trials this month, those contrasting “roadmaps”, or theories of the case, revolve around whether defendants were, pick one:
1 – Like the EDA itself, lied to and taken in by McDonald misrepresentations, and victimized themselves due to the EDA’s inability to provide adequate oversight of the alleged criminal actions of its executive director, or:
2 – Were willing participants in individual portions of the series of schemes McDonald is alleged to have hatched between 2014 and 2018 to defraud the EDA out of as much as $21 million dollars in assets to her own, and the benefit of others willing to provide needed “outside” the EDA co-conspirators.
The base compensatory claim of $11.9-plus million against Tran and his ITFederal LLC company is the largest in the EDA’s series of civil liability cases; and Tran has also filed a counterclaim for damages from a lack of EDA oversight of their former executive director. That former director McDonald made an out-of-court “no-fault” settlement for about $9 million in largely real estate assets in the EDA civil claim case against her in the wake of her bankruptcy filing. The only other million-dollar-plus jury award came last week when Donald Poe and his Earthright Energy Solar (ERE) were found liable for a base compensatory claim of $945,000, coupled with combined punitive damages against the two defendants totaling about another $300,000. All attorneys in the earlier civil trial cases have indicated they will file motions to overturn the verdicts based on a contention of inefficient evidence to convict.
Testimony by former EDA and County counsel Dan Whitten in the plaintiff’s case Friday noted former U.S. Sixth District of Virginia Congressman Robert Goodlatte’s championing of Tran and ITFederal as an economic development opportunity here at the former Avtex Superfund environmental remediation site. Whitten testified that both McDonald and Goodlatte presented Tran as a successful Northern Virginia businessman, with a $140-million federal government contract with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the basis for his planned Data Center development based out of a 28,000 square foot building on a 30-acre parcel at the Avtex/Royal Phoenix Business Park. However, it turned out that federal contract was an “IDIQ” (Indefinite Demand Indefinite Quantity) that essentially puts one in a position to bid on coming government contracts, rather than any guarantee of a contract.
The Goodlatte-championed ITFederal project also suffered financially when it didn’t qualify as an EB-5 Visa project. Whitten noted the EB-5 program was utilized nationally to encourage foreign investment in the millions in local economic development projects in the U.S. in return for “green cards” and family access to U.S. citizenship. Not testified to was the fact that the program has a rather notorious reputation for not usually realizing exactly what was promised in the way of financial support at the outset.
Whitten testified that Goodlatte had suggested the $10-million loan to ITFederal and Tran to illustrate to the media and public a working cooperative relationship between a local municipal EDA and the private sector. Whitten said that Goodlatte even said that Tran didn’t really “need” the loan, but that it would be a good public relations effort. Whitten testified that the EDA had anticipated that the loan would be short-term as more of a public relations effort, than an actual business loan. That helped explain the EDA board’s acceptance of McDonald’s representation that Tran was going to be an “anonymous investor” to the tune of $8 million in a planned Criminal Justice Academy project.
Responding to a question, Whitten also said Tran had never come to an EDA Board of Directors meeting during the ITFederal recruitment, proposal, loan acquisition, and planning process. In fact, he said he, as EDA counsel, had never previously met Tran.
McDonald was on the stand a rather brief time compared to her previous EDA case appearances, three minutes for direct, and two minutes for cross examination. Asked about her interactions with Tran, and a false claim of VEDP grants for the ITFederal project at Avtex by EDA counsel, McDonald invoked her 5th Amendment right not respond at risk of self-incrimination a total of eight times. She added two 5th Amendment replies to cross examination questions, before defense attorney Melus cut his questioning off.
Plaintiff second witness Debbie Melvin testified that after one meeting with Tran in 2016, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership never received follow-up information sought from Tran about his company to verify its eligibility for a Virginia Jobs Investment Program grant, and that VEDP never authorized any grant funding for the ITFederal Avtex project or any Tran project in Warren County. Earlier Whitten testified that the EDA didn’t find out that paperwork indicating that grant was achieved had been forged, apparently by McDonald, until the EDA financial scandal investigation was underway in 2018-19.
Lambert found liable to EDA for $183,562 in compensatory and punitive damages
After hearing an hour-and-45 minutes of direct and cross-examination of defendant William Lambert, as well as two hours of combined closing arguments by plaintiff and defense counsel Wednesday, July 20, a seven-person Warren County Circuit Court civil case jury took less than an hour, 45 minutes to be precise, to reach a verdict in Lambert’s civil liability case related to the “Warren Economic Development Authority” (EDA, WC EDA, FR-WC EDA) financial scandal.
That verdict was for the plaintiff EDA on all five claims of Fraud, Conversion, Conspiracy, Unjust Enrichment, and Ultra Vires; the latter, as regular readers now know after three EDA civil liability trials this month, a legal term for a public or business official overstepping their legal authority. The EDA was seeking $345,000 in compensatory damages, the total amount moved out of an EDA credit line account by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald in a 2014-15 home purchase and sale in which Lambert acted as a straw man in the purchase and sale of the 400 Craig Drive, Stephens City parcel. Two past EDA officials, former Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson and past board member Ron Llewellyn, both testified that there was no record of and no vote by the EDA Board of Directors to approve EDA involvement in the Stephens City home sale.
However, the jury awarded the EDA only $11,062.49 in compensatory damages. That was the total amount of three payments made directly to Lambert during the August 2014 to February 2015 purchase and resale of the Stephens City property done in his name as the initial purchaser and then owner-seller. Plaintiff attorney Cullen Seltzer pointed out that that purchase was made in Lambert’s name in 2014 for $320,000 and sold six months later for $270,000, a $50,000 loss.
“Who doesn’t care about a $50,000 loss in six months,” Seltzer asked rhetorically in closing arguments, suggesting an answer to the jury – someone consciously involved in a fraudulent transaction. During his testimony beginning shortly after 9:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, Lambert said his then-girlfriend, Kathy Butler, Jennifer McDonald’s sister, brought the proposition on the use of his name in her sister’s home sale transaction to him as an effort by McDonald to help an old college friend, Michele Bower, and her husband, sell a home she and her husband were “saddled with” after purchasing a home in Rockland in Warren County.
Lambert denied any knowledge that something untoward might be transpiring with McDonald illegally accessing EDA assets. However, as juries have been in the two earlier cases this month against defendants April Petty and Donald Poe, this jury appears to have found the paper trail presented by the plaintiff counsel convincing enough for a finding of liability. And with that finding, the jury imposed punitive damages of $172,500, particular to the claim of statutory conspiracy.
Following Judge Bruce D. Albertsons’ polling of the jury to determine a unanimous consensus and their dismissal by the court with thanks for their two days of attention and work, defense counsel Philip Griffin II told the court he would file a motion to set aside the verdict, particularly as to the punitive claim of statutory conspiracy and fraud. Griffin said he felt there had been no hard evidence presented indicating defendant’s actions related to “ill will, hatred, or spite,” as stated in the statute.
In fact, speaking to the media outside the courtroom, Griffin pointed to his client, noting he had previously had virtually no relationship with the EDA other than cutting some trees down on properties for them. During his time on the stand, Lambert noted one of his jobs was as a “logger.”
As he has in the earlier EDA civil liability trials, Judge Albertson set a time frame for motions related to setting the verdict aside. This one was for a 30/30/10-day turnaround, with 30 days for the defense motion filing, 30 days for a plaintiff response, and 10 days for filing of any additional material.
And next comes jury selection Thursday in the EDA versus Truc “Curt” Tran and ITFederal case, with that civil liability trial involving a compensatory claim of around $9 million slated to begin Friday morning, July 22, and continue through the following week.