A federal judge could decide if Jennifer R. McDonald’s criminal trial in the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority embezzlement case should move to another court.
A 34-count, federal indictment charges McDonald with defrauding the EDA of millions of dollars from June 2014 through December 2018 while employed as the authority’s executive director. McDonald stands charged in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia and remains free on bond.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth K. Dillon presided over a hearing held via video conference on Wednesday for McDonald’s motion to move the jury selection and trial from the Harrisonburg division to the Charlottesville division, both which are in the Western District.
McDonald’s appointed attorney, federal public defender Erin M. Trodden presented arguments for the motion. Assistant U.S. District Attorney Rachel B. Swartz argued for the prosecution.
Trodden argued that the court should transfer the case to Charlottesville because of the “overwhelmingly negative” media coverage and publicity surrounding the case against McDonald. Trodden also cited resolutions adopted by the Warren County Board of Supervisors seeking justice and for McDonald’s prosecution. Moving the jury selection and trial to Charlottesville would not create any undue hardship on witnesses called to testify at the trial given that it takes about the same amount of time to drive from the Front Royal area to either city.
After hearing arguments from both sides, Dillon said she would take the motion under advisement and rule on the request at a later date. The court may need to reschedule McDonald’s six-week trial, set to begin May 15, depending on how the judge rules on the motion.
Trodden made her argument for the motion.
“So this case should be transferred for jury selection and trial to Charlottesville Division because of the negative publicity and, relatedly, the negative public opinion regarding McDonald’s innocence affects a substantial portion of the Harrisonburg Division, and so that prejudice affects her ability to receive a fair trial here,” Trodden said.
Voir dire — the process used in jury trials to select a fair and impartial panel of jurors — would not sufficiently address this prejudice, Trodden argued.
Swartz said the government recognizes that there has been pretrial publicity in the case. But the court can address any problems with finding impartial jurors through voir dire, Swartz argued.
The Harrisonburg Division covers the counties of Augusta, Bath, Clarke, Frederick, Highland, Page, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Warren, and the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro and Winchester. McDonald’s case concerns Front Royal and Warren County, whose residents could consider themselves directly affected by the matter, given the allegations that their tax dollars were misappropriated, Trodden said.
A federal grand jury in the district indicted McDonald in August 2021 on 16 counts of money laundering, 10 counts of bank fraud, seven counts of wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. Federal authorities accuse McDonald of participating in a scheme from June 3, 2014 to Dec. 20, 2018, to defraud the EDA and to obtain money and property by false pretenses, according to the 34-count indictment. McDonald worked as the EDA executive director from April 2008 until late December 2018.
The indictment outlines what federal authorities describe as schemes that McDonald conducted by using money she stole from the EDA without permission. Schemes involved real estate transactions, according to the indictment. Much of the U.S. government’s allegations in its criminal case mirror claims made by the EDA against McDonald in its civil lawsuit filed in Warren County Circuit Court in March 2019. The EDA lawsuit accused McDonald of using authority money without permission to engage in schemes such as real estate deals, some of which she conducted with co-defendants named in the civil complaint. McDonald has since been released from the lawsuit by way of a partial final judgment and remains liable to the EDA for $9 million.
Trodden argued that media coverage of the case and previously filed, local civil matters involving McDonald and the EDA have been “overwhelmingly negative” toward the defendant.
“So the press coverage has largely tracked the allegations in the EDA civil suits, especially initially,” Trodden said. “As these suits have progressed through the courts, again, the press coverage has followed them closely and has basically tracked the arguments made by both sides.
“That is problematic here for Mrs. McDonald because both sides have found it expedient to point the finger at her,” Trodden said.
Attorneys for the co-defendants in the EDA’s local civil case argued at their trials that their clients did not know of McDonald’s alleged actions.
Oh as high profile this case was the judge may want to move it down next to Bristol VA. I am pretty sure that it was on the news in Charlottesville to. Lord it made CNN.
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