FRONT ROYAL – The amount of money Jennifer McDonald, former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority executive director, allegedly helped embezzle from the authority has increased from $17.6 million to $21 million, according to Circuit Court Judge Clay Athey.
Athey noted this increase during a Monday hearing in which McDonald was denied bond for the second time since her May 28 arrest on four felony counts of embezzlement.
Those charges stem from McDonald allegedly doctoring invoices related to the Afton Inn renovation project to make personal credit card payments.
Peter Greenspun, McDonald’s lawyer, noted that when she was originally denied bond, the prosecution referenced the EDA’s $17.6 million civil case that alleges embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds by five people, including McDonald, and limited liability corporations associated with those individuals.
While the credit card transactions are mentioned in the EDA’s civil filing, Greenspun said the $17.6 million embezzlement case is a separate proceeding. He noted that in the previous bond hearing, the prosecution implied that McDonald has millions of dollars to flee or “inhibit the commonwealth’s investigation.”
Athey then mentioned in passing that the alleged embezzlement has apparently increased to $21 million, adding “that’s another matter,” and did not further elaborate.
Information regarding the increased amount of the alleged embezzlement is the subject of a special grand jury investigating the misuse of public funds, and all documents in those proceedings are sealed.
Greenspun noted that it is difficult not having access to those documents, but the special grand jury is mostly investigating public funds allegedly being used for real estate transactions, which would result in McDonald not having “ready cash” to flee the area.
He added that Athey ruled that most of that real estate be seized through the civil case proceedings, and there has been no finding illustrating that McDonald “has a stash of cash” or “hidden bank accounts.”
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton said the alleged embezzlement includes extensive and complicated transactions, and there is no telling where that money is. He added that while “many people” are involved in the embezzlement, she is the key figure present throughout it all.
Layton said the allegations against McDonald have resulted in an “underlying issue of trust” and in considering bond the court must ask “do we trust that this defendant will do what they say?”
He added that trusting McDonald would appear for her trial “would be utterly foolish of this court.”
Greenspun said the alleged $35,000 in credit card payments linked to the Afton Inn funds is all she has been charged with and “that’s it at this point.” He lamented that the prosecution “wants to talk about the overall investigation rather than these payments.”
Athey noted that the context for the criminal case is that it stems from the special grand jury, which formed after revelations presented in the civil lawsuit. He added that while he as heard an array of embezzlement cases, this allegation is different than a defendant stealing from a non-profit organization.
He said the allegations consist of someone stealing public funds and McDonald is “not someone working as a bookkeeper who stole $25,000.”
He noted that if released on bond McDonald does not seem to be a threat to the public. He added that the late former Sheriff Daniel McEathron, another defendant in the civil lawsuit, committed suicide May 28 and that he hopes McDonald has not contemplated that action, to which she shook her head no.
Athey noted, however, that while McDonald has the presumption of innocence, he cannot grant her bond unless he has probable cause to believe that she will appear for trial.
He said McDonald provided her lawyer a fraudulent document, which was submitted as evidence in the civil case and “that in and of itself is probable cause to deny bond.”
Athey added that he has thought “long and hard” about whether she should be charged with civil contempt for providing that fraudulent document.
Greenspun also argued that McDonald should be granted bond because the day she was indicted, she immediately went to her house upon being told that state police were there, proving she is not a flight risk. Layton responded that McDonald was told the state police was there with a search warrant for her house, not with an arrest warrant.
Greenspun further noted that McDonald has pre-existing health issues – which resulted in her being transported to the hospital the weekend of her arrest with chest pains – and she is not getting proper treatment in the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail.
Athey said he would submit a court order that McDonald receives any needed medical treatment. If that does not happen, he said jail representatives would be asked to appear in court.
McDonald is due in court July 15, at which point she will either plead guilty or a trial date will be set.