County leaders, attorney at odds

‘Leaked’ legal advice irks Litten

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK — Some Shenandoah County leaders and their attorney sparred Tuesday over “leaked” legal advice and the fate of a volunteer fire station.

County Attorney J. Jay Litten made comments at the Board of Supervisors meeting refuting that he and Department of Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew talked about dissolving the Toms Brook Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. Litten called the claims in an article published in a local newspaper “absurd.”

“There was no such discussion,” Litten said. “To my knowledge dissolution was not being discussed or thought about by anyone.”

The article had cited information from an email correspondence between Litten and supervisors. Litten said he could not comment further on the “leaked” information because of the attorney-client privilege.

“This situation is a little bit unusual in that half of the email conversation has been reported in the newspaper at great length,” Litten said. “The other half of the conversation — the half that provides some context — well, that was omitted.”

Litten warned that the leaking of information in the future could come back to haunt the board and the county.

“The legal issue is that it is painfully apparent that confidential, legal advice is being disseminated to others and I’m not sure there’s any law against that, but it has definite, legal effects,” Litten said.

Case law says that unless a board finds and censures the person responsible for leaks, supervisors may waive any attorney-client privilege that would apply to the advice disseminated, Litten said. The attorney said he wasn’t suggesting the board take action against the leaker and that he didn’t know who leaked the information.

“This is really about two, simple things: First, a lawyer needs to be able to talk to his client without the whole world listening and my client is the six of you and you all certainly need to be able to get advice from me without it appearing on the front page of the newspaper,” Litten said. “And secondly, we don’t want to screw up our attorney-client privilege.”

Supervisor Cindy Bailey responded by saying she did not believe Litten’s comments in the email were confidential, legal advice but rather opinions. Bailey said residents and volunteers in Toms Brook have felt for years that the county has wanted to take over the station.

“In writing, on that email, you clarify that for me, that we should take Gary’s [Yew] advice and decertify Toms Brook because they’re not playing the way we want,” Bailey said.

“That is not at all what I said,” Litten interjected. “That is a deliberate misrepresentation of what I said.”

Bailey then offered to make the email messages available to the public.

“I would invite anyone reading them to actually read them,” Litten said.

Supervisor Marsha Shruntz then asked Litten if he was “trying to stifle” her free speech, to which he replied “no.”

Board Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley asked Yew if he talked about disbanding the volunteer group with anyone.

“As God as my witness, I have never had a discussion with Mr. Litten, any board member, administration, among any of SCFR staff to recommend or even suggest to dissolve the Toms Brook Fire Department,” Yew said. “The Lord can strike me dead where I stand if I’m wrong.”

Neither Litten nor County Administrator Mary Beth Price would provide copies of the email in question to the media, citing that the message contains privileged information.

Litten began his comments with a response to recent criticism of his service to the county and the board made by Shruntz and Bailey. Litten also provided the board with a memorandum detailing his charges for legal services.

“I read in a local publication the other day that [Bailey] continues to disparage me and I thought about that and I thought that around her seem to be disproportionate numbers of two groups of people,” Litten said. “One group is ‘yes men’ and the other group is enemies and I don’t consider myself to be in either group.

“I am definitely not an enemy of Miss Bailey,” Litten continued. “I want all of you to succeed in every way possible — her no less than the rest of you. But I’m damn sure not a yes man either and the lawyer’s job is to be neither of those things.

“But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lines that should not be crossed,” Litten said, leading into his comments about the fire station correspondence.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com