FRONT ROYAL — Supervisors Chairman Dan Murray commenced a Tuesday meeting with a moment of silence during which he asked those in attendance to “say a prayer for the community that we bring back the peace and tranquility to this beautiful location.”
The prayer request came a week after the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority filed a $17 million civil lawsuit against nine defendants over alleged embezzlement.
The EDA was an ongoing theme throughout the meeting.
During his report to the board, Murray said it is “imperative” that the investigation regarding issues identified in the lawsuit continues. He added that other issues are likely to be presented in the future.
“We welcome this opportunity as a way to ensure to the public that county operations do not include any misfeasance or malfeasance. We welcome full transparency,” he said.
Murray added that due to the advice of legal counsel, “we have not been allowed to fully disclose what appears to be gross fraud.” He said this confidentiality must continue for there to be a fair trial.
“In the meantime, I ask the community to please treat others as they themselves would like to be treated,” Murray said.
Supervisor Tony Carter noted that the EDA’s annual audits “did not raise any red flags.” Upon learning that the EDA overcharged the town by $291,000, Carter said he suggested that a forensic auditor be hired to conduct an examination of EDA finances.
Carter added that the forensic auditor has been “aggressively” examining all financial transactions relating to the EDA over 13 years. He added that the board is aggrieved by the audit’s findings and that restoring public trust will be a high priority of the supervisors.
Carter added that the public can rest assured that the supervisors, EDA and county staff look forward to assisting ‘the special grand jury, state and federal agencies with this ongoing investigation.”
“For those who are innocent, this will be their exoneration. For those that have committed criminal behavior, this will ensure they will be charged, fully prosecuted and, if found guilty, sentenced,” he said.
Supervisor Tom Sayre noted that Sheriff Daniel McEathron — who owned land with former EDA director Jennifer McDonald and is one of the nine defendants in the lawsuit — did not recuse himself from an investigation into vandalism at her house.
Sayre added that former Front Royal police chief Bruce Hite did not recuse himself from an investigation regarding a break-in at the EDA office, although he is McEathron’s brother-in-law.
Sayre also detailed a police report that describes a meeting between Detective Landin Waller, Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden, McDonald and her private investigator Ken Pullen.
Sayre said that during the meeting it was not disclosed to Madden that local reporter Roger Bianchini had been told of vandalism at McDonald’s house before it happened.
“Mr. Madden ended up having to find out by guess who...me. I’m the one that told Mr. Madden...he didn’t find out from the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, he didn’t find out from Front Royal P.D.,” Sayre said.
Cheryl Cullers, a nurse and lifelong county resident, used the public comment period to announce her intention to run as an independent for the board’s South River District seat in the November election.
“The names often associated with my county are sadly not new to me. I have heard them all my life. Helltown, crooked, corrupt,” she said.
Cullers said that building a positive identity for Warren County must begin now and will necessitate “trust, integrity, accountability and time.”
“The residents are angry and they want to get to the bottom of what happened to the EDA. They also want to stop this from ever happening again,” she said.
Cullers recommended the creation of a fraud hotline in which anonymous callers could provide tips regarding corruption “without fear of retaliation, hostile work environment or loss of employment.”
If that is not implemented soon, she said it would be one of her top priorities if elected.
Kriste Atwood during the public comment period requested that a moratorium be placed on county spending until the special grand jury finishes its investigation of the EDA.
She added that the EDA audit is a “farce.”
“I have received so much information and researched it myself and there are so many holes and I’m not even a lawyer and I can pick through it,” Atwood said.