Jennifer Rae McDonald, the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority’s former executive director indicted by a federal grand jury on 34 counts related to alleged financial improprieties, claims she cannot receive a fair criminal trial in Harrisonburg.
McDonald, who has remained free on bond since being indicted in August 2021, faces seven counts of wire fraud, 10 counts of bank fraud, 16 counts of money laundering and one count of aggravated identity theft.
A six-week jury trial is scheduled to begin May 15 in Harrisonburg. But her attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Trodden, filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia last week seeking to transfer the jury selection and trial to the Charlottesville Division.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth K. Dalton has scheduled conferences for pre-trial motions for March 8, March 28 and May 4.
Federal authorities allege that McDonald used EDA money without permission to perpetuate schemes for her personal, financial benefit while she was an employee. The EDA made similar claims in a lawsuit against McDonald and a handful of co-defendants in Warren County. McDonald and the EDA reached a deal in which she agreed to repay $9 million to the authority.
The defense cites the media reports that McDonald reached a $9 million settlement with the EDA as inadmissible. Many potential jurors in the Harrisonburg division have been exposed to it already in local press articles, the motion states.
Trodden argues that the criminal case and the related civil litigation “have received extensive publicity in the upper Shenandoah Valley, and the already-difficult task of selecting jurors available for a six-week trial will be compounded by the fact that many of the jurors in the Harrisonburg division will be biased in favor of the prosecution because of that publicity. Transferring this case to the Charlottesville division will inconvenience neither parties nor witnesses and will facilitate the selection of an unbiased jury.”
None of the individuals likely to appear at trial live in Harrisonburg; most reside in the Front Royal-Warren County area, the motion states. Per Google Maps, Front Royal is 63 miles from Harrisonburg and 74 miles from Charlottesville, the motion adds.
McDonald served as the EDA executive director for more than 10 years, and the federal government alleges that she defrauded the EDA out of millions of dollars to benefit herself and others during the last approximately four years of her tenure.
“The allegations of financial malfeasance have spawned a host of court proceedings, generated a welter of press stories, and upended local politics,” Trodden’s motion states.
The EDA’s reconstituted board sued McDonald and other individuals and entities accused of involvement with the authority’s financial “mismanagement,” the motion notes. Front Royal, in turn, sued the EDA and created its own economic development authority.
The motion states that the allegations surrounding McDonald and many of the people surrounding her work at the EDA have had “graver consequences.” It notes that former Warren County Sheriff Daniel McEathron, who was a member of an LLC with McDonald, died by suicide soon after her arrest on local charges, which later were dropped.
The defense argues that the “prompt administration of justice” supports the change of venue.
“The storm of allegations, lawsuits, and political repercussions related to Ms. McDonald’s tenure at the EDA, all amply covered by regional press, and involving a claimed $21 million loss to the EDA, the suicide of a respected community member, and the fraught issue of local government finances, will make it difficult to select a jury from the Harrisonburg division that is free of bias against Ms. McDonald,” the motion states.
The defense cites articles published by local and regional media outlets, beginning with reports of the EDA possibly owing money to Front Royal in October 2018 and McDonald’s resignation two months later, to the FBI raid of the authority’s office in the spring of 2019. The motion incorporates comments posted online with the article about McDonald.
“The press reports surrounding Ms. McDonald have been overwhelmingly negative,” the motion states. “Press coverage of the civil trials notes that the civil defendants, as well as the EDA, have painted Ms. McDonald as the primary malefactor.
“For example, in his closing argument in the civil trial of Donnie Poe, the EDA’s attorney (Cullen Seltzer) is quoted in the Northern Virginia Daily as saying, ‘Lies. Tricks. Stealing. Corruption. Earth Right Energy and Donnie Poe and Jennifer McDonald worked diligently to get rich off the EDA,’” the motion states. “Mr. Poe’s attorney argued ‘that McDonald acted alone and that the EDA board of directors at the time should take the blame for allowing its employee to act without permission.’”
The motion goes on to state: “Both sides of the trial — and thus of the press coverage — presented Ms. McDonald as the villain.”
The defense goes on to argue that press reports contained information about the case, some of which the government likely plans to present in its case. Even if the court deems some of that information not admissible at trial, the defense argues that the jurors with “even a nodding acquaintance with the press coverage will already be familiar with some of the government’s evidence, and thus more likely to believe it.”
Trodden goes on to state that the “illusory truth effect” — where people tend to believe information when repeated, regardless of veracity — would make it difficult to eliminate jurors subject to this bias.
“Finally, the statements of elected officials in Front Royal and Warren County strongly suggest that public opinion in the area is biased against Ms. McDonald,” the motion states.
The defense cites a resolution passed unanimously by the Warren County Board of Supervisors in 2021 in which members expressed discontent at the pace at which the criminal side of the EDA scandal was proceeding at the time.
“The public efforts of Warren County elected officials to influence the decision-making and timing of the prosecution in this case further demonstrate the high level of bias against Ms. McDonald in the area,” the motion states.
What would really be interesting would be a list of names of all the folks who got loans through the EDA in the last 30 years, I’m sure no one would be surprised to see the people whose names are probably on it .
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