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New Augusta County Board of Supervisors chair elected under criminal complaint cloud

Chris Graham
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The Augusta County Board of Supervisors has a new chair: Jeffrey Slaven, who you may remember from an Oct. 15 criminal complaint alleging that Slaven and fellow county supervisor Gerald Garber had tried to get a critic of the county government fired from her state-government job as retaliation.

“Ooh, I was wondering when you were gonna bring that one up. I don’t know. I’ve never been contacted by anybody officially from any law enforcement agency saying I was under an investigation,” Slaven answered a question from Scott Seaton, another fellow member of the Board of Supervisors, ahead of the 5-1 vote on Wednesday that approved Slaven as the board’s new chair.

This was Slaven’s first public comment on the criminal complaint since it first surfaced publicly in a report from Augusta Free Press on Oct. 31.

Background: The criminal complaint

Seaton pressed Slaven at the BOS meeting on the allegations in the Oct. 15 criminal complaint, which was filed by Sheryl Helsel, an animal care inspector with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, alleging that Slaven and a third county supervisor, Gerald Garber, “used their public positions to retaliate against me for expressing views on matters of public concern,” according to her complaint.

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 Seaton.

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 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, 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.

First public comment

AFP, as noted above, first reported on the criminal complaint from Helsel on Oct. 31. We reached out to Slaven and Garber for comment on the allegations in the complaint in the course of our reporting for that first story, but neither responded.

Slaven’s back-and-forth with Seaton at Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting is the first public comment from either on the criminal allegations.

Slaven, in response to a question from Seaton, who asked if Slaven had met with Broadus and McGreevey to discuss “a private individual,” replied, “I did not,” and doubled down on a follow-up from Seaton.

“I didn’t meet with anybody at the VDACS office,” Slaven said, then after a pause, asked Seaton: “Are you conducting an investigation?”

Slaven tried to sidestep a question from Seaton on whether he had boasting to a county resident about reporting Helsel “to her job,” first raising issue with the definition of the word “boasting,” before conceding that he had, in fact, met with VDACS officials, but not about Helsel.

“It wasn’t about the speaker’s job, my friend,” Slaven said. “It was about our county inspection and our relationship between the county and VDACS.”

Seaton’s next question: “When did you talk to VDACS about the county inspection at the animal shelter?”

“I didn’t talk about the speaker. The animal shelter,” Slaven said. “I talked to them about our longstanding inspections and our relationship between the county and VDACS, who we’re required to work with to get those inspections.”

Seaton: “Did this speaker before the board do that inspection?”

“It’s not my knowledge that she did or didn’t. I don’t know, OK,” Slaven said. “When I got done, I was done with it. I didn’t follow up on anything. Never made another call about it.”

The status of the criminal complaint

Augusta County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Martin, on Nov. 2, announced that he was going to seek the appointment of a substitute prosecutor to investigate criminal allegations against Slaven and Garber.

“Because I know many of the players personally, I am going to let someone else look into it,” Martin wrote in an email to AFP. “This doesn’t change anything, and is no commentary by me on the strength of the allegation, just a decision to take this citizen’s complaint to someone who doesn’t know any of the parties.”

We reached out to Martin on Nov. 27 to ask if a special prosecutor had in fact been appointed.

“I actually don’t know,” Martin said by email. “I requested a special, and then the judge from there will choose who it is.  I don’t know who he chose.”

That request from Martin would have gone to the Augusta County Circuit Court, so I next reached out to Heather Griffin, the judicial assistant to Augusta County Circuit Court Judge Shannon T. Sherrill, a former assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in Waynesboro who was appointed to his judicial post last year.

Griffin’s response: “This office only recently took over finding special prosecutors for cases and the one that I have done since taking over that responsibility had a seal order. Meaning, I cannot speak to which case it is, who the defendants or potential defendants are, or which special prosecutor was appointed. Therefore, I cannot speak to this matter, if it even was this case or not.”

Assuming Slaven was being truthful, and also not splitting hairs, when he answered Seaton by saying, “I’ve never been contacted by anybody officially from any law enforcement agency saying I was under an investigation,” it would appear that whatever investigation should be under way has not yet gotten started.

It’s either that, or there’s a hope on the part of those in the local power structure that the whole thing will just go away if the story doesn’t get any more oxygen.

If you’ve read this far, you probably already know this: this story will not just go away.

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].