FRONT ROYAL – As Supervisor Tom Sayre waited Wednesday in the lobby of the Warren County Circuit Court to be called before a special grand jury investigating potential embezzlement at the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority, a defamation suit filed against him by the authority’s former executive director Jennifer McDonald was underway.
In September, Sayre filed a civil defamation lawsuit against McDonald in district court claiming that because he was asking questions regarding the EDA’s workforce housing project, she framed him for a June 2017 incident in which a rock was thrown through her front door.
Five months later, McDonald sued Sayre for defamation in Circuit Court, claiming that he knowingly and falsely told people that she threw the rock through the door.
McDonald was charged on a misdemeanor count of filing a false police report related to the rock-throwing and was found not guilty. A typed note was at the center of both the Wednesday defamation hearing and the misdemeanor case.
That note contained detailed instructions on how a perpetrator should throw the rock and listed two numbers, including Sayre’s, to contact when the deed was done. Lee Berlik, McDonald’s lawyer, said: “whether the note is authentic or not remains to be seen.”
During the misdemeanor hearing, police testified that McDonald pointed out the crumpled note on her lawn, saying she knew it was not there earlier because she cleaned the yard that day.
According to previous reports, McDonald notified the Warren County Sheriff’s Office that the rock was thrown around 9 p.m. June 15, 2017.
That morning, McDonald was interviewed by police officers regarding a May 2017 break-in at the EDA’s office during which files relating to the proposed criminal justice academy and its investor, ITFederal, and the proposed workforce housing project were stolen from the office.
McDonald resigned as the EDA’s executive director on Dec. 20, and three months later she was one of nine defendants sued by the EDA in a $17.6 million civil embezzlement lawsuit. A special grand jury has been formed to investigate the matter and McDonald was arrested in May on counts of embezzlement.
All of the stolen files were related to projects cited in the EDA’s lawsuit as ways McDonald allegedly embezzled from the EDA.
According to police files, there was no forced entry at the EDA’s office and the three people with keys were McDonald and former EDA employees Missy Henry and Marla Taylor Jones.
Police reports state that around the time of the EDA break-in, local reporter Norma Jean Shaw inquired if Curt Tran, ITFederal developer, was the private investor donating money for the construction of the police academy. McDonald told police that the only way anyone would know that information is if they had the stolen files.
The note found on the lawn stated that “Norma Jean” “will be waiting” for “the files.”
Judge Dale Houff, who found McDonald not guilty, said that it is “fairly clear” the note was “fabricated and “something is made up and something is horribly wrong with this.”
The key witness in the misdemeanor case was local reporter Roger Bianchini, who testified that McDonald told him of the rock-throwing incident several hours before it occurred. Bianchini also relayed that account when being interviewed on June 16, 2017, a day after the rock was thrown, regarding the EDA office break-in.
McDonald’s lawyer during the misdemeanor hearing, however, said Henry had a calendar stating that Bianchini visited the office the morning of June 16, which is likely when he was told of the incident. Bianchini denied this, saying he would not have forgotten a meeting that occurred just hours prior to the police interview.
Berlik said that Shaw is a potential witness in the defamation case because her name is on the note. David Downes, Shaw’s lawyer, noted that the note says “Norma Jean” with no last name. Berlik requested all communications she had with Bianchini, Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden and Mark Egger — a vocal critic of the EDA and McDonald.
Athey asked how these communications would be relevant, especially considering that Shaw is not a defendant.
Berlik responded that the portion of the note stating that “files” should be delivered to “Norma Jean” infers a reference to the documents stolen from the EDA office. He added the note suggests a “network of people” were involved in the rock-throwing.
Athey noted again that “nobody’s accusing Ms. Shaw of anything,” which means “she falls into a different category than Sayre” in regards to what communications should be turned over.
Athey then approved a request that communications between Shaw and Sayre from May to July 2017 be turned over but denied the request for communications Shaw had with Bianchini, Madden and Egger. Downes noted that Berlik was already notified that there were no communications between Sayre and Shaw between May and July 2017.
Berlik also requested that Sayre’s phone records from the week of the rock-throwing be turned over, a motion for which Sayre’s lawyer questioned the relevance. Berlik said that it would be “very relevant” to see who Sayre talked to the night the rock was thrown. This, he said, may lead to the “identity of the person who threw the rock.”
Athey granted the request, saying “it seems to me that’s relevant.”
Berlik also filed a motion that Sayre turn documents outlining his net worth, which Sayre’s lawyer opposed. Berlik said this will help determine damages and noted that McDonald turned over documents showing her net worth in Sayre’s defamation suit against her.
Athey said “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” and allowed Sayre’s net worth to be subject to discovery.
Sayre’s defamation suit against McDonald is set for Aug. 2 in Warren County General District Court, which Berlik said will likely include an appeal to the Circuit Court.
With that in mind, Athey set a Sept. 18 hearing during which a trial will be set for McDonald’s suit against Sayre.