FRONT ROYAL – The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority cannot figure out the solar panels sitting atop its office that were installed by Earth Right Energy Solar-Commercial LLC.
According to the EDA’s $17.6 million embezzlement and misappropriation lawsuit – in which Earth Right Energy and its owners Donald Poe and Justin Appleton are defendants – former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald paid the company about $1.2 million for the installation of solar equipment that the authority’s board never approved. In court filings, lawyers for Earth Right Energy have denied any wrongdoings by the company.
McDonald has been arrested on 14 felony counts of embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses while Poe has been arrested on felony counts of obtaining money by false pretenses and perjury.
Of that $1.2 million, the lawsuit claims that about $841,900 was “for installation and equipment never performed or provided.” Upon being told that the EDA did not plan on proceeding with the installation of solar equipment at 426 Baugh Drive, a report by Cherry Bekaert — the firm hired to study the EDA’s finances — states that Earth Right Energy reimbursed the EDA $334,851.
County and EDA Attorney Dan Whitten explained over the phone that McDonald told the board that the installation would be free as Earth Right Energy would receive tax credits.
While checks written to Earth Right Energy were signed by former EDA Chairman Greg Drescher and former Vice Chairman Bruce Drummond, Whitten said previously said he did not know if those signatures were legitimate or forged by McDonald.
Earth Right Energy did install solar panels on the top of the Kendrick Lane office complex that houses the authority. Douglas Parsons, EDA executive director, explained after the authority’s regular Friday meeting that there is barely enough walking room on the roof as it is lined with panels. He noted that the Staunton-based company Secure Futures told him that the equipment is “high quality” but a high-end pricing estimate for its installation was about $250,000 opposed to the about $400,000-plus the EDA paid.
He said those solar panels generate about $14,000 worth of electricity per year but the EDA cannot figure out how to bill tenants in the buildings.
Gretchen Henderson, EDA administrative assistant, said after the meeting that while the solar panels were installed, the authority was never given the proper software to read what offices in the building use what amount of electricity. She added that the solar panels do return electricity into the town’s power grid, but the Town of Front Royal does not provide credits for that electricity.
Cherry Bekaert’s report outlines a Jan. 29 — about a month after McDonald resigned — text message exchange between her and former EDA administrative assistant Michelle “Missy” Henry — also charged on counts of embezzlement — regarding the solar billing.
According to previous reports, Peter Greenspun, McDonald’s lawyer, noted during a May bond hearing that she had been working for Earth Right Energy.
In those text messages, McDonald asked Henry: “Is solar working at the eda?” and that “I am here now with donnie and he is ripping justin a new one right now.”
Henry responded: “No”.
McDonald responded: “Justin may not have a job after this”.
Henry responded: “Oh s!” and “well then I need to walkbin out there and donnie ask me in front of justin how the billings going!!!”
McDonald responded: “Oh justin finally said u were waiting on something and donnie lost it there were so many f-bombs being dropped”.
Henry responded: “Cable needs to b ran is what justin told me.”
McDonald responded: “He told donnie it was a meter”.
The Cherry Bekaert report states that this exchange occurred after Henry signed a non-disclosure agreement “concerning this internal review” and that EDA Attorney Dan Whitten instructed her not to speak with McDonald about EDA matters.
Due to the billing confusion, tenants in the office complex have not been paying electric bills. EDA board member Marjorie Martin suggested that the authority start billing based on the square footage in each office.
After the matter was broached during the authority board’s meeting, EDA board member Mark Baker noted that perhaps the situation should not be discussed in open session as it is part of the ongoing civil litigation. At that point, the conversation halted to be continued during a closed meeting.
Freedom of Information Act exemptions cited before the board went into closed session included: discussion or consideration of the acquisition of real property for a public purpose; discussion concerning a prospective business or industry or expansion of an existing business or industry; consultation with legal counsel and briefings by staff members or consultants regarding to actual or probable litigation; and consultation with legal counsel regarding specific legal matters including loans, accounting, debt service issues and the Afton Inn.