June 24, 2024
County supervisors and attorney in a December meeting discuss paying for consulting services related to EDA that began in September.

Transparency. It’s what every public servant should strive for; it is what every citizen should demand. It is not, however, what often transpires in local government.

Royal Examiner  filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request on Jan 3, 2019 in an attempt to acquire the identity of a contractor, apparently a forensic auditing company, which the Warren County Board of Supervisors approved a $90,000 payment to, related to the ongoing audit of EDA finances.

According to information received from County Attorney Dan Whitten in response to the FOIA request, that audit and forensic consulting contract has been in place since mid-September 2018. On December 21 at a specially-called meeting the county supervisors authorized a $90,000 payment for three months of work already accomplished by the firm whose identity has been kept secret from the taxpayers whose money has been used thus far to foot the bill for their work.

About two weeks after authorizing that expenditure, the county supervisors authorized another related payment of $50,000 for the future services of a legal firm that has provided past bond counsel advice to both the County and EDA.

Whitten, who continues to represent the interests of both the county government and EDA in the ongoing audit related to EDA finances, has cited attorney-client privilege in keeping the identity of the contracted consultant from public disclosure.

In addition to the identity of the contracted forensic auditing firm, Royal Examiner  has sought information on the nature of their work. On pages 1 through 4 of a 10-plus page contract proposal submitted by the consultant on September 11, 2018, a three-phased “Summary of Services” is presented – those phases are “Planning and Mobilization”, “Fieldwork” and “Reporting”.

In the contract document presented by County and EDA Attorney Dan Whitten in response to Royal Examiner’s  FOIA request, the consultant reports: “We will perform the following:” followed by 1-3/4 pages of redacted material.

Following that redacted portion of the contract regarding the scope of its work, the company addresses “CONFIDENTIALITY”: “We are assisting you in the provision of legal services, and our related communications are confidential and covered by attorney-client privilege and the attorney work product doctrine… Accordingly (redacted company name) will treat as confidential all information not in the public domain that we receive from the EDA, except as otherwise contemplated by this agreement, or as required by law. (Redacted company name) shall not disclose such communications, materials, or information to any third parties unless specifically authorized by the EDA.” Download entire letter here: EDA Financial Consultant contract letter 9-11-18_Redacted

So it appears that Whitten himself has previously indicated to the press the identity and scope of the work related to this consultant’s work, and that it may be made public once the final audit and audit report is made in coming weeks.

Following the December 21 special meeting at which the board of supervisors authorized the $90,000 payment on behalf of the EDA for three months of work done by the firm, Whitten told the media: “Basically it’s an outside eye coming in outside of your normal accountant and normal auditor… They do fact-finding, intrinsic review – that type of thing. It’s just basically they’re looking for indicia of any improper activities.”

Both Whitten and EDA Board Chairman Gray Blanton have expressed hope that at least the final audit report will be available at the EDA’s monthly meeting, now scheduled for Wednesday, January 30. Whether the consultant’s report will also be ready hinges on what the audit finds, Whitten has observed.

Blanton, who with Whitten signed the contract with the consultant for the EDA, has expressed some frustration at the time the audit and its review by third parties is taking.

“These audit guys have charged a fortune to do what they’ve done. If they can’t come up with the numbers something’s wrong,” Blanton said following acceptance of EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s resignation by e-mail on December 20.

As previously reported by Royal Examiner, McDonald’s resignation was submitted about 20 minutes prior to the scheduled start of a special meeting closed session to discuss the executive director’s job performance.

Asked at the time if he thought her resignation might have been preemptive, in anticipation she would be asked to resign or be fired, Whitten said, “She was in the closed session with us last Friday and she was met with the evidence… or documents that the auditors had found, and felt she needed to resign.”

As for the EDA board chairman’s assessment of McDonald’s departure after nearly a decade heading the town and county’s economic development engine, he said, “In the one year I’ve been here she has been very efficient in her presentations to the board. She’s always answered our calls, she’s always given us all the explanations and we all like that. That was good and we thought that everything she was doing was okay. But we found out through the audit that there might be something that’s not okay.”

However regarding the initially-estimated $291,000 of debt service over-payments made by the Town of Front Royal over the past eight years, the EDA Board Chairman added, “The last time I asked her, she said ‘yes, we have the money.’ ”

As to specifics, Blanton who has been on the job as board chairman for less than four months, pointed reporters to EDA Attorney Whitten.

“We don’t have the evidence now that funds might be missing. We don’t have any hard numbers at this point that we can present to media or to the authorities. So we’re still getting final numbers from both our auditor and the accountant,” Whitten told the media on December 20.

The fact that money might be missing speaks to why many citizens have expressed concern–even disbelief–that the county would allow Dan Whitten to continue representing the EDA.

Regarding the taxpayer money authorized by the Board of Supervisors, $140,000 so far, Whitten said the plan was for the EDA to reimburse the county coffers for the expense.  We can assume there will be more transparency in relaying that bit of good news to county taxpayers.

Roger Bianchini contributed to this report.

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