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Criminal complaint: Two members of Augusta County BOS engaged in ‘malicious maneuver of retaliation’

Chris Graham
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A state employee alleges that two members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors criminally conspired to get her fired from her job because of her work with a third county supervisor to address issues with the decades-long illegal assessment of impoundment fees by the regional animal shelter.

Sheryl Helsel, an animal care inspector with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, has filed a formal criminal complaint against Gerald Garber, who represents the Middle River District on the Board of Supervisors, and Jeffrey Slaven, who represents the North River District on the BOS, requesting that Augusta County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Martin investigate the supervisors for the retaliatory effort.

“Supervisor Gerald Garber and Supervisor Jeffrey Slaven committed an act of ‘prohibited conduct’ under the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act. They used their public positions to retaliate against me for expressing views on matters of public concern,” Helsel wrote in her complaint, which is dated Oct. 15.

Helsel, in the complaint, called the acts by Garber and Slaven “a malicious maneuver of retaliation” for her efforts to raise attention to the issue with the illegal animal-shelter fees, which were first highlighted publicly by the third county supervisor, Scott Seaton, who represents the Wayne District on the BOS, earlier this year.

We reached out to Garber, Slaven and Seaton on Monday to give each an opportunity to comment on the allegations from Helsel; no one from among the three had responded to our invitations to provide comment for this story as of this writing.

Chris Graham on the complaint against two members of the Augusta County BOS

Seaton first spoke publicly about the fees after the controversy that resulted from the revelation in March that the Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center had euthanized four dogs, including one, Annabelle, whose owner, Jessica Evans, a Craigsville resident, was told that her dog would be held at the shelter until she could pay fees that, as it turns out, are not authorized by state law or county ordinance.

But Seaton, in the face of the narrative that his critics on the Board of Supervisors have crafted in the months since, wasn’t actually the first to raise issue with the legality of the fees; Helsel, a Waynesboro resident, was.

“Approximately one year ago, I began communicating (as a private citizen on my personal time) with my Waynesboro City Council members regarding unlawful enforcement practices for violations of animal laws and ordinances in all three localities (Augusta County, Staunton, and Waynesboro) via the withholding of animals from owners pending the collection of prerequisite direct monetary payments assessed by the officers and treasurers without a proper summons. This had been going on for decades, and my goal was to prompt the urgent correction of these practices, as they constituted unlawful seizure of property without due process and extortion (518.2-59) against our citizens,” Helsel wrote in her complaint, by way of providing background.

Helsel reached out to Seaton, she wrote in the complaint, as he took the lead on addressing the issue from inside county government, noting that “the board, as a governing body, has the power to direct the County Administrator to act immediately to rectify the situation. But the majority did not agree then there had been any wrongdoing by the county and was attempting to quiet the issue in a defensive strategy instead of directing an urgent halt and addressing the matter.”

After a contentious Board of Supervisors meeting on June 14 in which Slaven dared Seaton to “prove” his allegations that the county seemed to be intentionally dodging his efforts to find a legislative solution, Helsel asked Seaton to meet with her at her home on June 25 “in order to review the proposed ordinance amendments, provide him some comments, and let him know that we planned to speak in support of his efforts.”

An unidentified friend of Helsel then posted to a private social media group that they would be meeting, and invited members of the group to the meeting, Helsel wrote.

Helsel, in her complaint, reports that on June 21, the date the social media item was posted to the private group, “a screenshot of this post was taken by an unknown person,” and that the next morning, on June 22, “a photo was taken of the actual phone displaying that screenshot lying on a surface.”

That image, Helsel reports, was sent by text to Dr. Charles Broaddus, the State Veterinarian, 30 minutes later, from the phone of Gerald Garber, identified by its phone number.

That same day, Helsel wrote, Garber and Slaven met in person with Broaddus and David McGreevy, the deputy director of the VDACS regional office in Harrisonburg, “to inform them of this upcoming meeting at my home with Supervisor Seaton and my plans to speak at the next board meeting.”

According to Helsel’s complaint, Garber and Slaven “made the allegation that this was a ‘conflict of interest’ because of my official role as the state Animal Care Inspector.”

The issue raised by the supervisors led to a meeting for Helsel in Richmond “with my supervisor, manager, and director,” in which Helsel was notified “that this matter was being investigated.”

“The result of this review was that I had not violated law or policy. My right to engage with elected officials is protected by section 2.2-2902.1 of the Virginia Personnel Act (as well as several other rights protected by law),” Helsel wrote in her complaint.

“Supervisor Gerald Garber and Supervisor Jeffrey Slaven committed an act of ‘prohibited conduct’ under the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act. They used their public positions to retaliate against me for expressing views on matters of public concern. I believe they were also attempting to circumvent my meeting with Supervisor Seaton and my attendance at the 6/28/23 meeting of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors,” Helsel wrote, before noting that she did meet with Seaton as she had planned, and also spoke, as planned, at the BOS meeting on June 28.

Garber and Slaven, Helsel wrote, circumvented the process in place for raising issues with the conduct of state employees by not following “proper channels.”

“In the event that Augusta County had a genuine concern regarding the integrity of animal shelter inspection activities, the County Administrator or his appropriate staff member should have contacted a supervisor or manager of the Office of Veterinary Services (the program) in the Division of Animal and Food Industry Services (the division) of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (the agency).

“Two board members acting in their own accord to contact the State Veterinarian directly within minutes of viewing a social media post (about my intent to meet with a board member against whom they have an adversarial and opposing stance, and speak at an upcoming board meeting in support of that member) is a malicious maneuver of retaliation,” Helsel wrote.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].