FRONT ROYAL – All criminal charges handed up by the special grand jury investigating the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority have been dropped, according to Special Prosecutor Michael Parker.
Parker stated via email that “these are dismissals without prejudice,” which “means the same charges, and more charges if appropriate, can be brought at any time in the future."
Charges dropped included felony counts related to financial improprieties against former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald, former EDA Administrative Assistant Michelle Henry, former B&G Goods store owner William Lambert and McDonald’s husband Samuel North. Those individuals were scheduled to appear in court Friday afternoon, hearings that Parker said were canceled as a judge had already signed off on a request to drop the charges.
On April 16, 2019, FBI and Virginia State Police officers were seen carrying boxes of evidence out of the EDA’s Kendrick Lane office. Contacted last year, FBI spokesperson Dee Rybiski said she could not confirm that the FBI was indeed conducting an investigation into EDA-related activities.
Asked over the phone if his request to drop the charges was related to a possible FBI investigation, Parker replied: “What I can say to that is I don’t have any comment to that.”
Parker stated in an email that “I assure you I am not pleased about this” and that “I also assure you this is not the end.”
“However, while it is my duty to bring justice to the guilty, it is also my duty to be just and ethical in my conduct at all times, to everybody. That includes people who have been accused but have not yet been found guilty. At the current time, I am unable to satisfy certain basic obligations I have to the defendants, which have existed since before I was appointed on the case. I cannot ethically keep this status quo," he stated.
Parker said over the phone that he could not expand upon the nature of those “certain basic obligations” that he is unable to satisfy.
Parker added in the email that "I'd run the risk of a judge at some point dismissing them with prejudice" - meaning the charges could not be brought back - if he attempted to keep the cases active.
Parker noted that the dropped charges have "nothing to do with the special grand jury,” whose operations were recently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That grand jury was convened shortly after the EDA in March 2019 filed a $21.3 million civil lawsuit alleging embezzlement and questionable dealings within the organization.
Parker stated that the special grand jury’s “work has been tireless, diligent, and unfortunately thankless.” He added that the jury’s “excellent work will continue when it is safe to return, and appropriate charges will be brought when they conclude."
“They’re not finished and they have a duty to finish and they want to finish,” he said over the phone. “That’s the way that it needs to be. I don’t have any specific timetable but as soon as it’s safe for them to return to work, they’ll return to work and I expect them to be finished rapidly after they return to work.”
McDonald was first charged May 24 on two felony counts of fraud and embezzlement, and further indictments trickled out throughout the year. In total, she was charged on 32 felony counts that were released in several rounds of indictments.
Parker, who is a commonwealth’s attorney assistant in Rockingham County, took over the case in November after then-interim Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton recused himself from the matter due to his impending departure from the Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
Parker said over the phone that the rolling basis on which the indictments were handed up is not how he would have handled the matter had he overseen it since the beginning. Although he would have pursued it differently, Parker added that does not mean the previous attorneys conducted the job in a “poor” or “bad” manner.
“If I had been appointed to this matter from the very beginning, this is the procedure I would have followed...the grand jury investigates, the grand jury finishes investigating, the grand jury makes recommendations, and I choose what to prosecute,” Parker stated in the email.
Parker noted, however, that the prior prosecution team “may have had a workable plan in place for this.”
In an emailed statement, McDonald’s lawyer Peter Greenspun expressed umbrage with “the drip, drip, drip nature of this prosecution.”
The nature in which the indictments were released, he stated, “has been extremely trying for Jennifer McDonald and her family, and a burden on the Warren County Circuit Court.”
After McDonald was arrested in May, she spent about two months in jail before being granted bond in July.
“Since May 2019, the Commonwealth has put Jennifer through an outrageous process, which included serial indictments and several weeks in jail without any basis for the denial of bond. The initial prosecution team was ill-prepared to respect speedy trial guarantees, routine discovery requirements, and the well-established practice that when the government indicts an individual, they are representing that they are at that time prepared to proceed to trial,” Greenspun stated.
Greenspun added that McDonald “is grateful that current counsel acknowledged that the Commonwealth was still not prepared to proceed to trial in a timely fashion, and therefore moved the Court to dismiss the charges.”
Greenspun declined to have any further discussions beyond his emailed statement.
Parker noted over the phone that the dropped charges are "not a speedy trial issue," noting that the right to speedy trials has been waived in several cases throughout the state due to the pandemic.
“It’s not really about speedy trial. It is, however, the impact of COVID on the general rights of the defendant not to be restrained because they are all legally restrained in one way or another,” he said.
In total, the special grand jury indicted 19 individuals on 83 counts, all of which have been dropped or dismissed.
In October, Circuit Court Judge Bruce D. Albertson dismissed 42 misdemeanor charges of misfeasance and nonfeasance against 14 current and former county officials. As a basis for the dismissals, Albertson cited the fact that misfeasance and nonfeasance are not in fact crimes in Virginia.
Additionally, charges levied against local businessman Donald Poe were dropped in January with the possibility of them being brought back in the future.
Eventually, Parker said that a report of the grand jury’s process will be publicly available, but he is not exactly sure when it will be released.