FRONT ROYAL — Jennifer McDonald and Donald Poe, who have been charged by the special grand jury investigating misuse of funds within the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority, were released from jail Wednesday after being granted bond by Judge Bruce D. Albertson in Warren County Circuit Court.
McDonald, 42, of Front Royal, is the EDA’s former executive director who was arrested May 24 and stands charged on 14 felony counts of obtaining money by false pretenses and embezzlement. She was granted a $50,000 secured bond after Warren County Circuit Court Judge Clifford L. Athey previously denied her bond twice.
Poe, 60, of Strasburg, is a local businessman who was arrested last week on felony counts of obtaining money by false pretenses and perjury. He was granted a $20,000 secured bond.
While requesting bond, McDonald’s lawyer Peter Greenspun — a Washington D.C. lawyer whose website states he has been recognized every year since 1999 as one of the best lawyers in America — noted that the special grand jury likely will extend its investigation six months beyond its Sept. 30 expected completion date, which would render a speedy trial unrealistic.
Greenspun said the prosecution has offered no evidence of resources McDonald could use to flee and that she has nearly exhausted her retirement funds to mount a defense.
A report by Cherry Bekaert — the firm hired to investigate EDA finances — alleges that McDonald wired $10,000 to her civil lawyer Lee Berlik.
“At this time it does not seem like she has much resources,” Greenspun said.
He added that “past is a good prediction of future” and McDonald did not flee last year when she stood charged, and was eventually exonerated, on a misdemeanor count of filing a false police report.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton said that the chance McDonald will flee is “elevated” compared to before her arrest. He noted that some of the charges against McDonald include her allegedly using over $3 million of EDA money to make a series of personal land deals.
Those land purchases, along with a series of other allegations, are detailed in the EDA’s $17.6 million civil lawsuits against McDonald and eight co-defendants, including Poe.
Layton said that “quite frankly, we don’t know where all of the money went” but some of the money “passed through” McDonald’s hands.
Layton added that during civil hearings regarding the alleged embezzlement, McDonald’s lawyer had to withdraw evidence she provided due to suspicions that it was fraudulent.
“I would caution the court of taking Ms. McDonald at her word as far as her assets,” Layton said.
In a court filing that outlines the bond request, Greenspun laments over “suffocating and judgmental media coverage” and that McDonald “has been fully aware of the microscopic media attention.”
“The local press has surrounded the allegations of public corruption within the EDA...The assumption of guilt has weighed heavily on Ms. McDonald and her family,” Greenspun states.
Greenspun noted that instead of responding by fleeing or hiding, McDonald hired lawyers and cooperated with law enforcement.
He said in court that McDonald has strong family ties to the area and that support system has remained “despite best efforts of the press to oppress her presumption of innocence.”
Greenspun said “the publicity of the case” has resulted in McDonald being held in solitary confinement at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center although she was initially sent to Fairfax to allow her to be held in the general inmate population.
If she remains in jail, he said the ability to mount a defense is “not only limited but it’s virtually non-existent” due to limited visitation and the number of documents that must be reviewed.
He further noted that before McDonald was arrested she experienced health issues and was scheduled to wear a heart monitor for 15 days. Since being arrested, he said McDonald experienced “seizure-like activity” that led to “extensive hospitalization” while being held at the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail and a five-day hospitalization in Fairfax.
Conditions of McDonald’s $50,000 secured bond include that she: display good behavior; attend all court dates; stay in Virginia; not use alcohol or drugs; seek employment; handle no financial transactions as an employee; stay off EDA property; stay at home from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.; have no contact with co-defendants; and not disseminate any documents related to the case to anyone except her lawyers.
Albertson said: “I’m sure people will remind me” if he wrongly assessed McDonald’s flight risk but “so be it.” He added that if evidence surfaces that McDonald has “ill-gotten” money, the bond can be reconsidered or the amount of bond can be increased or decreased.
He added that embezzlement cases usually arise when a person is “a financial mess” and they usually do not have leftover stolen funds.
Albertson noted that failure to appear in court is a felony punishable by five years in jail and it is much easier to prove than embezzlement.
Greenspun also filed motions requesting access to transcripts of special grand jury testimony and for the prosecution to file a more detailed complaint regarding McDonald’s alleged criminal activity.
Layton said the special grand jury’s investigation is an “ongoing matter” and the commonwealth is willing to hand over some transcripts but does not want Greenspun to have “unfettered access.”
Greenspun responded that “I suppose I want unfettered access” and there is no reason the testimony should not be released unless the commonwealth offers information that the special grand jury is investigating matters outside of the EDA and McDonald.
Greenspun said the charges levied against McDonald came in “short form indictments” and she needs more information to properly defend herself. Those indictments include only the charges and the dates on which they allegedly occurred and Greenspun said this “general genre” is not satisfactory.
Albertson said that by Friday he will email the defense and prosecution his ruling on those requests.
William Ashwell, Poe’s attorney, said that Poe should be granted bond as he is a 60-year area resident descended from relatives who lived here in the 1700s. Ashwell said family ties do “not get any more solid than that.”
Ashwell added that Poe has been at every hearing, cooperated with the special grand jury, and did not attempt to flee service of indictments.
Although Poe was charged in 1989 on felony counts of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana, Ashwell said Poe has had no recent legal issues and is an upstanding member of the community.
Ashwell added that if Poe’s case was not related to the highly publicized EDA situation, the bond matter would be simple. Ashwell said: “we intend to fight” the charges “vigorously.”
Poe’s bond conditions are similar to McDonald’s and include requirements that he displays good behavior; not use alcohol or drugs; stay off EDA property and have no business with the EDA; not contact any co-defendants; and not disseminate EDA-related documents to anyone but his lawyers.
Michelle “Missy” Henry, who is the EDA’s former administrative assistant and the remaining individual charged by the special grand jury, was granted bond last week. She appeared briefly in court Monday as her lawyer Ryan Nuzzo requested a more detailed complaint against her.
Albertson denied that request, noting that he would reconsider if future evidence that surfaces does not satisfy Nuzzo.
McDonald is due in court at 3 p.m. Oct. 15, Henry at 9 a.m. Nov. 7, and Poe at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 30.