FRONT ROYAL — An expected plea by Jennifer McDonald, former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority executive director, on 12 felony counts of embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses was delayed indefinitely Monday when Warren County Circuit Court Judge William W. Sharp recused himself from all EDA-related cases.
The charges against McDonald stem from alleged fraudulent actions she carried out during her 10-year tenure as the authority’s executive director. In addition to the criminal charges, the EDA filed a $17.6 million lawsuit against McDonald and eight co-defendants for a series of alleged embezzlements and misappropriations.
Had Sharp not recused himself from the Monday hearing, McDonald would have either pleaded guilty or a trial date would have been set. A new date for McDonald to enter a plea has not yet been scheduled.
Janice Shanks, the circuit court’s interim clerk, said a new judge must be appointed to oversee the matter and that she is not certain when that will happen.
An order for recusal filed in circuit court states that Sharp cannot hear EDA matters because some of the individuals involved in the civil and criminal cases “are personal friends or former clients or persons with whom the judge has otherwise had regular association.”
The order states those individuals include “a number of persons who are named as defendants in the pending EDA civil action,” EDA board members and “persons who it appears may be material witnesses in the civil action filed by the EDA.”
“It is necessary for this judge to recuse from all cases that may relate to the Warren County Economic Development Authority and Jennifer McDonald, in order to ensure that all parties can be confident the judge has no association with any persons who might be involved in a particular case, either as parties or a witness,” the order states.
The Monday hearing was the first matter related to McDonald or the EDA over which Sharp resided, as he became circuit court’s presiding judge on July 1.
McDonald’s previous hearings were heard by Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr., who has been appointed to the Virginia Court of Appeals. In May, Athey denied McDonald bond and he has also been the judge for a series of hearings related to the civil case and overseen a special grand jury that is investigating the EDA.
Another defendant, Michelle “Missy” Henry, the EDA’s former administrative assistant, was denied bond in June following her arrest on two felony counts of embezzlement. Judge Thomas Horne, who presided over Henry’s bond hearing, said he would rather leave the decision on bond up to Athey because he was presiding over other EDA-related cases.
Henry is scheduled to appear Friday in circuit court but Shanks said she is not sure whether Athey will be in court that day. She added that Athey will not be present in court Wednesday when a motions hearing in the civil case is scheduled.