Above the law
South River Supervisor David Beyeler wagged his finger at the angry mob facing him. “I have taken an oath of office to uphold the laws of this state of Virginia, and I will look every one of you as close as I can in the eye, and I’m going to ask you, Do you believe in obeying the laws of this state, whether you agree with them or not?” Beyeler said moments before the March 11 vote of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors to kill a motion from Pastures Supervisor Tracy Pyles to roll back the controversial 2009 county property reassessment due to what appear to have been serious flaws in the assessment.
His rhetorical question was met with shouts of “No!” from across the meeting room. Beyeler sneered. “That is what’s wrong with this country. We only agree to obey the laws if it suits our fancy,” Beyeler said.
Interesting observation, that one. It’s been five years, but there was a time when even fellow Republicans were wondering aloud if Beyeler was thinking of himself as being above the law.
“I did go to Las Vegas,” Beyeler told me back in February 2004, as I was investigating a report that Beyeler had gone to the International Home Builders Show that January on the dime of the Augusta Home Builders Association. The local association had invited three members of the Board on an all-expenses-paid trip – Beyeler, Wayne Supervisor Wendell Coleman and Jim Bailey, who has since retired from county politics. Bailey told me that he felt uncomfortable with the invitation from the get-go and declined the offer to go. Coleman bandied about the idea of having the builders group give the money to the county that the Board of Supervisors could then authorize to go toward the travel expenses of the three, and to that end sought an advisory legal opinion from Augusta County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lee Ervin as to the legality of such a scheme.
Ervin, in a Dec. 9, 2003, advisory opinion, scuttled the idea from Coleman. “This gift is not being offered to Augusta County to use as the Board of Supervisors may see fit. Instead, it is being offered for the express and sole purpose of paying all expenses for individual members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors to attend the National Home Builders Association annual conference in Las Vegas. The members of this local home-builders association offering this gift includes contractors and developers who do business in Augusta County and who may very well appear before the Augusta County Board of Supervisors in the future on certain business ventures,” a prescient Ervin wrote.
So Coleman dropped out. Beyeler went and paid his own way, though even in doing that was at the least skirting if not the letter then the intent of conflict-of-interest law in that the builders show was not open to members of the general public, meaning that by simply accepting the invitation to attend he could have been receiving an improper benefit no matter who was footing his bills.
Beyeler defended his actions in an interview with me back in ’04. “When they invited me to go, and said they were going to pay my way, it was made clear that we were expected to attend some of the seminars. What I’m saying is there was something tied to it. It wasn’t just a trip to Las Vegas,” Beyeler said. “To me, that was a signal that they were hoping to that we would use this trip to educate ourselves on what’s happening in the building industry elsewhere so that we could use that knowledge when we got back home.”
“I did feel it would be a conflict of interest to go at their expense,” Beyeler added later in the interview.
Where this first went from the realm of a philosophical issue about conflict-of-interest laws to something tangible regarding public policy came in January 2004, a week before my first report on the trip to Vegas was published. A local developer, Tommy Shields, involved in the Augusta Home Builders Association won approval for a request to have the county amend its six-year roads plan to push a road project needed to open up a multimillion-dollar development ahead of several other projects then in the planning stages. The approval, by a 4-3 vote, came two weeks after the Board had voted 4-3 to kill the proposal. Beyeler, Coleman and Bailey voted in favor of the proposed resolution in both votes. Riverheads Supervisor Nancy Sorrells switched positions and joined the three in the second vote.
Act II of the reality check comes this spring, following the finger-wagging from Beyeler about obeying laws. The Board of Supervisors is advertising a tax rate of 48 cents per $100 assessed value to correct for the inflated property values in the ’09 reassessment, a 10-cent decrease from the current 58-cent rate. Who do you think benefits the most from a 17 percent tax-rate cut?
I’ll leave you to muse on how well my friends in the home-building industry are going to do with a 48-cent tax rate once the economy picks back up in the third or fourth quarter this fall.
– Story by Chris Graham