EDA officials: Closed meeting was legal

FRONT ROYAL – Economic Development Authority officials and their lawyer are denying accusations that they conducted a closed session illegally in June.

The accusations came Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors regular meeting when Mark Egger, a private citizen and father of former Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger, said the board illegally discussed a Front Royal police investigation into a break-in at the EDA office.

In calling the closed session illegal, Egger cited a July 2017 letter from EDA Chairman Greg Drescher to the Police Department, which read:

“The Board of Directors of the Economic Development Authority discussed during closed session the investigation regarding the EDA office building that is currently being conducted by the Front Royal Police Department. The EDA hired a Private Investigator to assist in the investigation and we are now requesting the Front Royal Police Department put the investigation on inactive status.”

McDonald said in a Wednesday interview there were also “several incidents” at her house being investigated by the Warren County Sheriff’s Office that she declined to comment upon further.

The personal nature of the incidents and break-in left McDonald concerned for her safety, and she opted to hire a private investigator with her own money, she said in a Friday interview. She confirmed this by presenting a canceled $750 check to the private investigation firm Ken Pullen and Associates.

She informed the board of her intention to hire a private investigator during the closed session. After consulting with County Attorney Dan Whitten, the board decided not to hire an additional investigator.

Whitten said during a Friday interview that no vote was held on whether or not the board should hire an investigator.

McDonald said the board did not discuss the police investigation itself. She noted that closed sessions are not recorded in minutes, and guessed that Drescher potentially made a mistake regarding the letter’s wording.

“I never went back and wrote another letter that said the board decided not to hire an investigator as a board,” Drescher said.

Drescher does not remember exactly what was discussed in the closed session.

“You’re asking me about a meeting a long time ago. I cannot give you a verbatim of what was discussed. There were some significant things going on with break-ins and some negative stuff going on with Jennifer going on at the time,” he said. “The EDA discussed how to handle it.”

The four motions for going into closed session were discussion of acquisition of real property, discussion of a potential business or industry, personnel, and legal consultation. Executive Director of the Virginia FOIA Council Alan Gernhardt said, “it is possible that the closed meeting discussion included matters related to the investigation of the break-in that would have been covered under the exemptions cited for personnel and legal matters.” The personnel exemption could cover the matter of whether the board should hire an investigator. The legal consultation exemption could be used to “discuss actual or probable litigation related to the break-in.” If the actual police investigation was discussed, as the letter from Drescher suggests, “it would appear that this discussion was not proper for a closed meeting,” Gernhardt said.

While the four exemptions listed for going into closed meeting were valid, only one purpose was identified with a specific related subject and “it would appear that the motion to convene this closed meeting was insufficient,” Gernhardt said.

Drescher said that one thing has been made clear: The EDA should provide specific reasons for going into closed session.

Egger also accused the EDA board of obstruction of justice, and claimed that the Front Royal Police Department did indeed stop the investigation.

Chief of Police Kahle Magalis said the letter could be “construed” as obstruction of justice, but does not think there is a legal basis for the claim and “just because someone says I want you to stop investigating something, doesn’t mean the investigation stops.” Cases are closed only through convictions or if prosecution is denied by the commonwealth’s attorney.

The case regarding the break-in at the EDA office has “never been closed” and with “every case, there are periods of activity and periods of less activity,” Magalis said.

The matter was turned over in December 2017 to Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden and “he is not willing to move forward, and not ready to decline the case,” Magalis added.

Madden did not respond to a phone message.

Drescher said he wanted the mystery over the break-ins and incidents at McDonald’s house “solved.”

“It was a very strange situation and I’m unfortunately in the dark as much as anybody else,” he said.

Correction: The article originally stated “Mark Egger, a private citizen and father of former Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger, said the board illegally discussed a Front Royal police investigation into break-ins at the EDA office and the home of EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.”

It should have stated that Egger said the board illegally discussed a Front Royal police investigation into a break-in at the EDA office.