In early 2019, Front Royal and surrounding Warren County, Virginia were rocked by allegations that the executive director of the Warren County Economic Development Agency (“EDA”), Jennifer McDonald, embezzled $21.3 million from the agency. The case is still unresolved and illustrates how the loss of faith in government institutions due to public corruption is more harmful than the amount of money lost. The disillusionment by local citizens with the lack of resolution in this case is evident in the comments below:
“[M]any, many town citizens have asked me why those who've embezzled money from the EDA have not been brought to justice . . . It's obviously first and foremost on their minds.”
- Front Royal, Virginia Vice Mayor and Councilman Lori Cockrell
“[P]eople come up and say ‘hey, are they going to do anything,’ and I say ‘I think they are,’ and they go ‘I don’t think so; that’s the way things work around here’ and that isn’t the way things work around here.”
- Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority Chairman Jeff Browne
“[M]any Town citizens have lost faith in the local criminal justice system as a result of [the special prosecutor’s] seeming reluctance to prosecute the alleged criminal activity . . . .”
- Resolution of the Town of Front Royal, September 28, 2020
Though suspicion had been brewing for some time, the details of the Warren County EDA scandal became clear in March 2019 when a special grand jury indicted 19 people on 83 counts related to the alleged embezzlement. Twenty-three of those counts were filed against McDonald. In May 2019, the county’s former sheriff of 16 years, who was implicated through a joint venture he had with McDonald, took his own life. In September 2019, a grand jury indicted every member of the Warren County Board of Supervisors on misdemeanor charges of misfeasance and nonfeasance, reportedly because their lack of oversight allowed McDonald’s alleged embezzlement scheme.
Those charges against the county supervisors were dismissed the following month. The case was then transferred to a special prosecutor in a neighboring county and in April 2020 the charges against McDonald and three other defendants were dropped over concerns he could not meet his speedy trial obligations. The special prosecutor described this as a “protective measure to keep these charges viable.” According to a statement by the special prosecutor’s office, the case was referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia in February 2020, which has since declined to comment on what, if any, investigation it is conducting. The people of Front Royal and Warren County are still waiting for accountability more than two years after criminal charges were first filed and over a year after the case was formally referred to federal authorities.
Public corruption cases are complex, difficult to prove, and involve treacherous political considerations. Because of this, they are pursued less often than other cases and conviction rates can be half those of other crimes. Federal prosecutors have more resources, capabilities and a greater degree of independence from local politiciansthan state or county-level prosecutors. These and other important factors support referring such cases to federal prosecutors, and most public corruption cases are prosecuted at the federal level. Still, it may be better to prosecute these cases at the local level, allowing communities to see their own local institutions adjudicating such allegations and building back faith in those same institutions. One of the most pernicious and damaging effects of public corruption is the erosion of faith in local government institutions, a crucial component of a healthy democracy. In federal civil procedure, courts recognize the importance of the “local interest in having localized controversies decided at home.” Such a consideration is also relevant in prosecuting public corruption cases. When prosecuted locally, citizens dejected by allegations of corruption can see accountability in their local courthouse, imposed by their local judge, in a case made by their local prosecutor. Accountability would not depend on federal prosecutors deciding to pursue the case, itself not guaranteed for every credible allegation of public corruption. A state or county-level prosecution may not exact as severe a punishment as a federal one, or detail as fully the corrupt conduct, but those factors may not outweigh the positive impact of a local prosecution in restoring public confidence.
In the Warren County EDA case, the decision to refer the case to federal prosecutors reinforces the conclusion that local institutions cannot always ensure accountability despite a strong local interest in adjudicating the allegations in the community’s own courthouse. The executive director was employed by the county and the funds allegedly embezzled belonged to the county and the Town of Front Royal. The people impacted most by the embezzlement of county assets are county residents. For example, one of the projects from which the executive director allegedly embezzled was a county effort to provide better housing to teachers in the county’s school system. The unanimous resolution passed by the Warren County EDA board in May 2021 repeating prior calls for a criminal prosecution demonstrates how desperate local leaders are for accountability.
Where the case can be effectively investigated and managed by local prosecutors, such a strong local interest should be given substantial weight when determining whether to refer the case to federal prosecutors. Robert Morgenthau, who prosecuted cases both locally as the longtime district attorney in Manhattan and federally in his previous role as the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, said, “It’s important as a matter of principle to show that local law enforcement can clean up its own house, rather than relying on the Feds to do it.” To properly restore the damage public corruption has done to a community’s faith in its institutions, it is also important as a practical matter to prioritize prosecution of local corruption at the same level of government at which the alleged corruption occurred even when fraught with challenges.