FRONT ROYAL – Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton, who is running against John Bell in the November election for commonwealth’s attorney, said his opponent's assertion that the case regarding potential embezzlements at the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority is being “slow-walked” through legal proceedings is not true.
The EDA has been under investigation since August by the state police and a recent $17 million civil suit filed by the authority against its former director Jennifer McDonald and nine other defendants alleges a series of embezzlements. Earlier this month, a special grand jury was impaneled to investigate the matter, which was followed by FBI agents removing documents from the EDA’s offices.
Bell recently noted that the commonwealth’s attorney office subpoenaed bank records relating to the EDA investigation in November 2018, which means the office knew there were serious signs of corruption months ago. He added that the office has known for months that former EDA director Jennifer McDonald, who earned $115,000 annually from her job, lost $700,000-plus gambling over four years. He said that alone was enough of a red flag to impanel a special grand jury and immediately indict McDonald.
Layton said he strongly disagrees with the assessment that the case has been “slow-walked” and the office has been diligent and thorough. He said the problem with any case is that it takes time to move through the legal system and “nothing is ever as fast as you would like it to be.”
He said that is especially true of financial cases, which by their nature are associated with myriad documents to “look through to find out what’s going on with all of this.”
Layton added there are many “procedural hurdles” and “huge issues” with moving too quickly without enough information, especially due to how far the “tentacles” of this case may reach. He said indicting someone too soon may conflict with the right to a speedy trial. He added that once somebody is indicted, the prosecution has five months to try the person if she is incarcerated and nine months if she is out on bond.
Bell also criticized the fact that it was not until last week that the FBI and Virginia State Police removed documents from the EDA’s office. He noted that McDonald was employed through December and wondered how much evidence in the office has been destroyed.
Layton said for “reasons that will become apparent with time," he cannot comment on why it was not until last week that documents were confiscated from the EDA office. He noted that search warrants must state with some specificity what is being sought and cannot cast a wide net.
“You can’t simply say ‘I suspect her of embezzling so, therefore, I’m going to go and shut down the entire EDA and rip everything out of their building,’” he said. “You can do that, but you have to be at the point where that search warrant is supported by probable cause.”
Layton added that the case has evolved over several months and such cases involve one paperwork request leading to another. He added that the $17 million figure was never cited until the EDA filed its lawsuit and there was a slow burn to that amount being revealed.
Once documents are obtained, Layton noted that it takes time to sort through them and digest their meaning.
He said: “we’re not talking about looking through one or two files” but “complex financial records” spanning back to the beginning of McDonald’s time with the EDA.
Layton said unless a jury consisted of forensic accountants, they would not be able to comprehend the “truckload of documents” the FBI removed from the EDA office.
He said that Bell is aware of “how this process works” and the limitations under which the prosecutors are working.
“I’m sure if the situation was reversed, he would be saying the same things to you because that is the nature of the job,” Layton said.
Bell also said the priorities of the commonwealth’s attorney office do not match those of citizens, which Layton said is simply not true.
“Do I wish it could have went faster? Absolutely. I’m a big believer in locking people up as soon as we can but you have to do right by the situation,” Layton said.