Mark this day on your calendar – on Tuesday afternoon, March 26, the first legal hammer fell in the wake of a six-month, quarter-million-dollar-plus investigation of Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (aka Industrial Development Authority) finances.
That hammer was the civil litigation authorized by the EDA Board of Directors on March 22, following a closed session presentation of CPA consultant findings related to the audit and investigation of EDA business practices.
Nine defendants are named in the 199-point civil filing for relief seeking a minimum $17,640,446 in damages split among the named defendants, both persons and LLC’s.
Defendants named in the action filed by the Sands-Anderson law firm shortly after 2:30 p.m. Tuesday are former EDA Executive Director Jennifer R. McDonald (Front Royal); Donald F. Poe (Strasburg); Justin Appleton (Front Royal); Earth Right Energy Solar Commercial LLC, registered agent Mandy Newman (Strasburg); Truc “Curt” Tran (Great Falls, Va.); Warren County Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron (Front Royal); DaBoyz LLC, registered agent Jennifer McDonald (Front Royal); MoveOn8 LLC, registered agent Joseph F. Silek Jr. (Front Royal); and ITFederal LLC, registered agent Terry L. Fox (Burke, Va.).
The introduction to the complaint states, “From at least 2016 until 2018, Jennifer R. McDonald, in her capacity as Executive Director of the Industrial Development of the Town of Front Royal and the County of Warren, Virginia (“Warren EDA”), engaged in a variety of schemes to unlawfully take money from the Warren EDA for her personal benefit. This is an action against Defendant McDonald and other confederates and co-conspirators to redress these unlawful takings and recover assets that are lawfully the property of Warren EDA.”
Cited in the civil action are EDA projects including the “ITFederal Loan; Subsequent Payments to ITFederal; Work Force Housing – Royal Lane Property Embezzlements; Afton Inn Project Embezzlements; Criminal Justice Training Academy aka Skyline Regional Justice Training Academy; Unlawful Payments Concerning Earth Right Energy LLC; and Unlawful Payment of Town and Warren County Funds for Defendant McDonald Owned/Controlled Real Estate”.
The civil filing states that “Defendant McDonald has admitted to improper activities and conduct in her capacity as Executive Director of the Warren EDA, including taking monies from the Town of Front Royal, Virginia (“Town”) and Warren County, Virginia (“County”) bank credit facilities for several purposes other than which they were intended.
“On December 20, 2018, Defendant McDonald admitted in an email communication to being liable for $2,700,000 in Warren EDA losses. This admission undervalues the extent of her theft and unlawful distributions, but is one indication of her consciousness of guilt in her conduct. ”
December 20, 2018 is the day McDonald resigned by email as the EDA Board of Directors was poised to go into a second closed session within a week to discuss her job performance.
Lengthy documentation, as stated above 199 points worth, is cited to describe the alleged scheme to misdirect EDA monies to other uses and pockets.
The method of relief for the plaintiff for the $17.6 million-plus in damages suffered by the IDA/EDA is cited as “Rescinding the … unlawful, and/or fraudulent transactions referenced in the complaint; Imposing all fees, costs, and expenses associated with the rescission against the Defendants jointly and severally; granting the $17,640,446 minimum judgment amongst the Defendants; Ordering the Defendants to return all Warren EDA property, real, personal, and financial, to the Warren EDA” and “Awarding the Warren EDA at least $1,000,000 in punitive damages jointly and severally against the Defendants” as well as attorneys fees “further relief deemed necessary in the interest of justice, fairness and equity.”
And you may have wondered by EDA Board Chairman Gray Blanton, who took over the chairmanship following Greg Drescher’s resignation last August as these developments began coming to light, has seemed a tad frustrated, tense and anxious in recent months for the result of the EDA audit investigation to come to light. An attempt to reach Blanton for comment prior to publication was unsuccessful.
Update: April Petty awaits Judge’s decision on motion to dismiss EDA civil case seeking return of $125,000 received from Jennifer McDonald during 2016 home sale process
(Author’s note: As of Saturday morning, May 28, at 11:15 a.m. this story has been updated with additional detail on the $125,000 check transferred from an EDA account by Jennifer McDonald to Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC during April Petty’s 2016 home sale process.)
Judge Bruce D. Albertson took dueling arguments on a defense motion to issue a summary judgment dismissing all civil claims regarding the FR-WC EDA’s action against defendant April Petty under advisement Tuesday afternoon, May 24. Cullen Seltzer represented the plaintiff EDA, now trading as the Warren County EDA in the wake of the Town of Front Royal pulling out of involvement as it litigates against the half-century-old joint Town-County EDA over disputed losses tied to the FR-WC EDA financial scandal. Petty was represented by defense counsel William Shmidheiser III.
Petty’s case, among a number of others alleged as beneficiaries and co-conspirators of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald are scheduled for civil court trials beginning in early July. Following taking the Petty motion under advisement the court dealt with jury selection issues with attorneys for a number of civil case defendants patched in by phone. Those included counsel for Truc “Curt” Tran and ITFederal, Donnie Poe and Earthlink Energy, Ms. Hassenplug, and Samuel North. With input from Circuit Court Clerk Angie Moore, it was decided a rather complex process involving a fairly large jury pool with begin Wednesday and Thursday June 29th and 30th.
The Petty dismissal motion filing dated April 21 targets all five aspects of the EDA’s civil case against Petty, scheduled for jury trial on July 5 and 6. All the civil liability aspects of the plaintiff EDA’s case against Petty revolve around receipt of a $125,000 EDA check from Jennifer McDonald that was applied to payment on a mortgage loan at Ocwen Loan Servicing on Petty’s home, during Petty’s 2016 effort to sell that home. That money is cited as part of the estimated $21 million in EDA assets that McDonald is alleged to have misdirected to unauthorized personal use and benefit of herself and others.
The five aspects of the plaintiff’s case against Petty are “Unjust Enrichment”, the receipt of benefit by one party from another without a reciprocal benefit to the other party (in this case the EDA); “Conversion” (unauthorized possession); application of the “ultra vires” standard of acting beyond one’s legal authority; “Conspiracy” in knowingly acting in concert with Jennifer McDonald in the receipt of misdirected EDA assets; and “Fraud” related to the “Conspiracy” allegation that Petty knew that $125,000 McDonald applied to her mortgage loan was money the EDA asserts was stolen.
Petty’s attorney pointed out that when an earlier grand jury was handing out blanket criminal indictments against alleged McDonald co-conspirators including two full EDA oversight boards, April Petty was not one of those indicted by the grand jury. Pointing to what he believes is a lack of evidence against his client having any knowledge of the alleged embezzlement conspiracy, Shmidheiser asserted to the court that “all the charges” related to the plaintiff’s “conspiracy theory” involving her should be dismissed. Essentially that is the final four of the five above EDA claims against Petty.
“All they had, have today is the check,” Shmidheiser told the court of the $125,000 check drawn on an EDA account appearing to be co-signed by McDonald and then EDA Board of Directors Chair Patricia Wines made to Ocwen (misspelled as Owen) Loan Servicing LLC that was applied to Petty’s home sale price.
At this point Judge Albertson asked defense counsel if McDonald had, in fact, transferred that money to April Petty. “Yes, but April Petty did not know that it was embezzled money,” her attorney said walking a legal tight rope between knowledge and consequence.
“You’re asking me to skip over the trial part of this case,” Judge Albertson told Shmidheiser. “Yes, I am,” defense counsel replied moving toward his argument against the “Unjust Enrichment” aspect of the case against Petty.
Noting his client’s belief McDonald was acting in her role as a real estate agent with Century 21 Real Estate in helping Petty accomplish the sale of her home, Shmidheiser asserted that his client was not by legal definition “unjustly enriched”. He elaborated that in exchange for the $125,000 check Petty believed was fronted to her mortgage loan to help facilitate her home sale, “plus another $210,000 Petty received at Closing on her home, she Deeded her house, which was listed for $330,000, to purchasers Mr. and Mrs. Leary,” Shmidheiser explained.
“She didn’t get money for nothing, she got money for her house,” the defense attorney later elaborated to this reporter on his courtroom arguments. During those arguments in support of his motion for a dismissal of the civil case against his client, Shmidheiser revealed how he prioritized his case for dismissal. And it appeared he felt the optimum legal path forward if a trial was required would be in dispelling the notion that April Petty was a conscious co-conspirator of Jennifer McDonald’s in her alleged embezzlement schemes.
“We’ll live with all but ‘Unjust Enrichment’,” Shmidheiser told the court of the prospect of a two-day trial in early July. “I’m confident we will win at trial,” Shmidheiser added of having to present the defense case to a jury on the conspiracy aspect of the EDA’s civil claims against his client.
Defense counsel also cited an established three-year statute of limitation standard he said the plaintiff had not met in charging his client for liability for funds she received in March 2016. The case of Belcher vs. Kirkwood was cited by Shmidheiser in support of the three-year statute of limitations having expired by the time his client was charged civilly. To not apply the three-year Statute of Limitations precedent would be tantamount to the court altering existing state legal precedent, which the defense attorney theorized would lead to a higher court reversal of denial of his motion for dismissal on the Unjust Enrichment aspect.
In countering Shmidheiser’s arguments, EDA attorney Cullen Seltzer disputed defense assertions surrounding the applicability of the Belcher vs. Kirkwood case in an alleged financial fraud not discovered at the time it was occurring in 2016 when Ms. Petty is believed by the plaintiff to have been involved. He also argued that the defense points being made in support of a motion for dismissal were more appropriate for a jury to hear for a finding of guilt or innocence.
For dismissal to be granted the defense must show that “no facts are in dispute” Seltzer told the court. And from the plaintiff’s perspective that is not the case. Seltzer noted that Petty admits the $125,000 check went to pay on her mortgage loan during her sale process.
“She was very anxious to sell,” Seltzer told the court of Petty’s motivation to accept money he said she had expressed “suspicion” about when offered. Of his client’s initial “suspicions” about the money offered from an EDA account referenced by the EDA attorney during arguments, Shmidheiser noted that Petty had been assured by, not only McDonald, but others that it was “business as usual” on the economic development/real estate transaction front.
Of Petty’s close friend Robin Richardson, who was said to have brought McDonald to Petty during her attempt to sell her house, plaintiff counsel told the court of a second transfer of funds. Seltzer asserted that when Petty put “almost $42,000 in her pocket from her home sale, she had given Ms. Richardson $10,000. Is there evidence that was money previously owed by Petty to Richardson or was it comparable to a “finder’s fee” for bringing McDonald into the picture to help facilitate the home sale with the $125,000 loan payment on Petty’s behalf, Seltzer asked the court.
And now both plaintiff and defendant are awaiting the court’s ruling on all aspects of the defense motion for summary judgment on dismissal of the case against April Petty.
WC EDA explores property sales, LFCC intern program, and meeting notification updates
The Board of Directors of the Front Royal and Warren County Economic Development Authority held the monthly board meeting on April 22, 2022, in person at the Warren County Government Center. The Board held the open session first. Items on the open agenda were change in time for the monthly Board of Directors’ meeting, review of the EDA properties, update of list for individual notice for EDA meetings, and an intern program.
The Board reviewed the EDA properties and possible avenues for disposition of the parcels. Jeff Browne stated LFCC interns would be available in May for possible EDA projects. The interns would be working for credit. Jeff asked board members to get back to him by April 29th at the latest with any ideas. Potential projects include review and organization of past strategic plans for the EDA and community and making them available to all at the library.
Jorie Martin, secretary, stated all monthly meeting dates and special meetings of the EDA are posted on the website currently with the agenda. Jorie informed the board currently notice is sent to 32 individuals who requested to be individually notified of all meetings via email. The notification list has not been updated for over 18 months. Jorie Martin requested the board authorize her to notify current individuals on the list that all meetings are posted on the web and to verify they wish to continue with individual notice. The board agreed notice could be sent to persons currently on the list confirming their desire to continue to receive individual notice. In addition, anyone currently not on the list but would like to receive individual notice via email of all EDA meetings please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Browne requested the EDA meetings return to 8 a.m. on the fourth Friday and the meeting location return to the EDA building. The board unanimously supported the changes. The changes will be posted on the website.
The Board went into closed session and no motions were made a result of closed session.
The next meeting is May 27th at 8 a.m. Please note time change. All meetings are posted on the website.
(A WC EDA Press Release)
WC EDA takes no action out of Special Meeting Closed Session
The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA or WC EDA), now working without Town of Front Royal involvement in the midst of Town-initiated civil litigations regarding relative liabilities and losses from the 2014-18 EDA financial scandal, held a Special Meeting at 9 AM Friday morning, April 8, to convene a Closed or Executive Session to discuss five matters. Two of those were the now dueling civil litigations between the WC EDA and Town of Front Royal. The other three related to possible real estate transactions.
The agenda listed the real estate discussions as involving “Avtex Redevelopment”; the “426 Baugh Drive” property; and the “Happy Creek Industrial Park” and “legal advice” related to those three matters.
EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne confirmed there were no announcements or actions taken out of the closed session. The now County overseen EDA met at the Warren County Government Center.
Watch: Royal Examiner video of WC EDA monthly meeting of February 2022
Watch the exclusive Royal Examiner video of the Friday morning, Feb. 25, Warren County Economic Development Authority (WC EDA) meeting at the Warren County Government Center.
Open session action items included approval of the C-CAP lease arrangement. Discussions included updating of the EDA Strategic Plan, the EDA’s FY2022-23 budget, and pursuing joint work with the new Town of Front Royal EDA (FREDA) on a vision for 147 acres of developable land with restrictive covenants on the former federal Superfund site at the Avtex property inside the town limits, but under control of the WC EDA.
Two adults in the room: Following Thursday meetings County and Town EDA boards move toward coordinated efforts
Communications, cooperation, and joint efforts toward community economic development were a crucial theme at a Special Meeting of the WC Economic Development Authority Executive Committee, Thursday morning, February 17. It was also the EDA board’s first official meeting with the new County Director of Economic Development Joe Petty. Still also County Planning Director, at least till a successor is found, Petty clarified his position as a county departmental Director of Economic Development tasked with working with the EDA Board of Directors, as the half-century-old jointly created Front Royal-Warren County EDA remains a legally independent quasi-governmental organization. In fact, the potential of a name change for what is still legally known as the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development, or Industrial Development, Authority was broached to avoid future confusion among potential clients due to the town council’s creation of a unilateral Front Royal Economic Development Authority.
Other major topics were the FY 2022/23 EDA budget preparation process and updates to the EDA Strategic Plan. On the latter front, interaction with the newly created independent Town of Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) was a major topic of conversation. In fact, on the Strategic Plan update front spearheaded by Jim Wolfe, communication with FREDA was suggested to see that both EDA entities were in step, presenting a coordinated Economic Development strategy for the community on both sides of the town-county line.
Communications and coordination was a theme picked up at the FREDA Board of Directors’ second meeting several hours later, at noon in the Front Royal Town Hall. In fact, in the wake of the 9:50 a.m. adjournment of the open portion of the WC EDA Executive Committee meeting, Petty was sent as a liaison to the town EDA meeting just over two hours later by the WC EDA board to initiate that mutually beneficial line of communication. Chairman Browne noted that Town Manager/EDA Director Hicks had issued an invitation to Petty the previous day.
The bulk of the FREDA Board of Directors meeting was largely organizational as its members become familiarized with the role they are expected to play in conjunction with other Town departments, including Planning & Zoning as that department spearheads the first rewrite of the Town Comprehensive Plan this century. In fact, Town Manager Steven Hicks, chairing the FREDA meeting in his additional role as FREDA’s Executive Director, observed the last Town Comp Plan rewrite occurred in 1998. State law mandates that municipalities review their Comp Plans every five years to see if updates are advisable due to changing goals or circumstances.
As bylaws, responsibilities, and creation of various board officer positions were on the table, dates for a planned organizational retreat and its next board meeting were set for next month. The retreat will begin at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, March 16, with its regular monthly meeting the following day, Thursday, March 17.
The one-two punch of a third board meeting directly following a full day of briefings on a variety of topics from future Town land use and development goals to State EDA support and grant availabilities, was cited as conducive to positive movement at the coming regular monthly meeting.
The WC EDA Executive Committee is comprised of Chairman Jeff Browne, Greg Harold, Jim Wolfe, and Jorie Martin, patched in by phone at the meeting’s outset while on the road with her husband. Martin arrived near the open meeting’s conclusion, and was on hand for the closed session to discuss the disposition of several identified properties including Baugh Drive and an Avtex parcel, and perhaps ironically considering all the positive communications discussion of the day, the dueling WC EDA-Town of Front Royal civil litigations.
After initial plans not to, the Town did videotape/stream Thursday’s FREDA meeting. And while the county EDA did not have videotaping capabilities at its Kendrick Lane office in the old Avtex Admin building, Royal Examiner cameraman Mark Williams was on hand to record that meeting’s open session.
WC EDA moves forward with bank refinancing, welcomes Joe Petty to directorship
The Board of Directors of the Front Royal and Warren County Economic Development Authority held a special meeting on February 4th, 2022, via Zoom. The meeting was authorized under Governor Northam’s executive mandate for the health emergency.
The Board adopted a resolution reapproving an agreement that:
- consolidates the First Bank of Strasburg loan into the existing First Bank and Trust loan and restructures the FB&T loan, and,
- extends the term and reduces the rate on the IT Federal loan while leaving the Town of Front Royal support arrangement unchanged.
The Warren County Board of Supervisors approved the agreement at the February 1st Board of Supervisors meeting.
In other business, James Wolfe, Treasurer updated the board on the final transfer of fiscal responsibility to Warren County. Mr. Wolfe updated the Board on the budget process for 2022/23. The draft budget will be approved by the EDA board and presented in April to the Board of Supervisors for review and approval.
Board members welcomed Joe Petty as the new Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Executive Director. Mr. Petty will continue his duties as the Interim Planning Director until his replacement is hired. Mr. Petty is a life-long resident of Warren County and brings many skills to the position.
Here is the resolution adopted.
RESOLUTION OF THE INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY OF THE TOWN OF FRONT ROYAL AND THE COUNTY OF WARREN, VIRGINIA RELATING TO THE FIRST BANK AND TRUST COMPANY LOAN REFINANCING
WHEREAS, the Industrial Development Authority of the Town of Front Royal and the County of Warren, Virginia (the “Authority”) has previously accepted a Term Sheet dated August 19, 2021, (the “Term Sheet”) from First Bank and Trust Company (the “Lender”) with respect to proposed modifications to three existing Lender loans to the Authority as described therein (collectively, the “Loan Refinancing”);
WHEREAS, the Authority approved the Term Sheet originally at its August 27, 2021 meeting, and subsequently reapproved the same at its September 24, 2021 meeting and desires to reaffirm and approve the Term Sheet at this meeting;
WHEREAS, there have been modifications made to the documents relating to the Loan Refinancing since such prior approvals, copies of which have been presented to the Authority in substantially final form, including but not limited to the Loan Agreement, the Support Agreement and the Deed of Trust (collectively, along with related closing documents and certificates, the “Refinancing Documents”);
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF THE INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY OF THE TOWN OF FRONT ROYAL AND THE COUNTY OF WARREN, VIRGINIA AS FOLLOWS:
1. It is hereby determined to be in the best interests of the Authority to proceed to consummate and settle the Loan Refinancing upon substantially the terms and conditions described in the Term Sheet and as reflected in the Refinancing Documents.
2. The Chairman or Vice-Chairman of the Authority (hereinafter the “Chairman”), either of whom may act, and the Secretary are hereby authorized and directed to execute and deliver such documents and take such actions as may be necessary or appropriate in order to consummate and settle the Loan Refinancing upon substantially the terms and conditions described in the Term Sheet, and as reflected in the Refinancing Documents.
3. The Secretary or any Assistant Secretary of the Authority, either of whom may act, is hereby authorized and directed to affix the seal of the Authority to such Refinancing Documents as may require a corporate seal and to attest to such seal.
4. All Refinancing Documents shall be prepared or reviewed and approved by the Authority’s outside counsel, and shall include such completions, insertions or changes not inconsistent with this Resolution as may be approved by the Chairman and Secretary of the Authority, in their sole discretion, in consultation which such counsel. The execution and delivery of the Refinancing Documents by the Chairman and Secretary of the Authority shall constitute conclusive evidence of their approval of such completions, insertions or changes.
5. The Chairman or Vice-Chairman and Secretary are authorized to sign an extension or extensions of the loan until the refinancing is completed.
6. This Resolution shall take effect immediately.