Home Who should lead the investigation into the Augusta County conflict of interest case?
Local, Politics

Who should lead the investigation into the Augusta County conflict of interest case?

Chris Graham
court law
(© thodonal – stock.adobe.com)

Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Martin, under state law, is in charge of the investigation of two members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who allegedly used their position to try to retaliate against a state employee.

A question being asked behind the scenes is, is there a conflict of interest element to Martin’s relationship with the Board of Supervisors that should lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the case?

Let’s examine the facts.

Background: Constitutional offices in Virginia

First, some background on the Commonwealth’s Attorney position that Martin has held since 2016. The post is one of five constitutional offices in the county that are filled in general elections – the others: Sheriff, Treasurer, Commissioner of the Revenue and Clerk of Circuit Court.

In theory, the people elected to lead those offices are supposed to be independent of county government; Virginia leaders, when they set things up for us generations ago, envisioned having an independent revenue commissioner, an independent treasurer and the rest serving as a check and a balance on the local governing body and administration.

In practice, things aren’t working the way the founders intended.

The revenue commissioner and treasurer, in particular, work practically in concert with county administration on money issues.

With regard to Martin in the Commonwealth’s Attorney office, his specific purview is the prosecution of felony, misdemeanor and traffic cases in Augusta County, which are all matters that would appear to have little or no intersection with the administration of local government.

The job is separate and distinct from the job of County Attorney, whose role is “the management, charge and control of all legal business of the county,” and is “legal advisor of the Board of Supervisors, County Administrator, and the various departments of the county government,” per its listed “Duties and Responsibilities” on the county website.

Chris Graham on the Augusta County conflict of interest investigation

The Nexus Services part of this story

Where Martin may have – emphasis on may have – blurred the line between his job as Commonwealth’s Attorney was in remarks that he directed at Scott Seaton, who represents the Wayne District on the Board of Supervisors, at an Oct. 12, 2022, Board of Supervisors meeting.

Martin, in the remarks, insinuated that Seaton was among those acting in league with protestors, and notably, those backing the protests, seeking to push the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office to outfit its deputies and vehicles with body and dash cams, a policy that Seaton has been an outspoken advocate for, but the Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff, Donald Smith, have consistently pushed back against.

Martin cast the protests over body and dash cams as being about something else entirely.

“There’s a chant that goes one, two, three, all the way up to 12, but before 12, they say, Fuck 12. That is another way of saying, Fuck the police. They chant that Donald Smith is a predator, which is a lie. They say blue lives, which means the lives of police officers don’t exist. This hasn’t been about body cameras. Don’t fool yourself,” Martin said, as he made the case that the protests were backed by Nexus Services, whose principals are facing a litany of local, state and federal criminal and civil court cases related to alleged fraudulent personal and business activities, without addressing Nexus Services by name.

“They say I am corrupt. They have sued me three times. Why do you think they say that? They say that because I, contrary to popular opinion, am the chief law enforcement officer for this jurisdiction, and they don’t want to be prosecuted,” Martin said, beginning his not so thinly veiled reference to the Nexus Services principals.

“They say Jeff Gaines is corrupt because he hasn’t pursued their political enemies. They say Mark Herring was corrupt because he sued them on behalf of folks that he claimed they take advantage of,” Martin said. “They said the same about Letisha James, who is the Attorney General for New York that sued them. They said the same about Maura Healy, the Attorney General for Massachusetts. They said the same and in fact sued the FBI and the Department of Social Services here in Augusta. All people who have tried to help people that they have harmed. Do you see the common theme here?”

The local battle between the Nexus Services side and the county government side, on protest lines and in courtrooms, has been ongoing for years, and it has cast a long shadow over a lot in terms of public-policy debates in the county, including the ongoing discussion of the need for body and dash cams, which are now standard issue in law-enforcement circles.

The basics there: if the Nexus Services side publicly backs a policy proposal, county leaders then automatically stand in opposition, including on the body and dash cam issue, which a public survey conducted by the county and released earlier this year showed has the support of 90 percent of county residents.

Back to the Oct. 12, 2022, BOS meeting: Martin also that night called out three county businessmen – Frank Root, Thomas Sheets and Julian Moffett – tying them to the protests, and the Nexus Services crowd, as well.

“They are not out there with the bullhorns marching. I wish they would. At least then it would be public. Those folks have been in the background doing business with these people, and in some ways propping them up, and that’s wrong,” Martin said.

Martin would later apologize for the criticisms aimed at those three.

But also at the Oct. 12, 2022, meeting, Martin offered strong words aimed at a fourth county businessman, Scott Cline, who was behind a PAC that, back in 2019, helped sponsor an ad campaign demanding that Donald Smith “answer questions” about a federal labor trafficking investigation “or immediately resign.”

Martin, at the Oct. 12, 2022 BOS meeting, said, in words directed at Seaton, that Cline, a friend of and political campaign donor to Seaton, “has an obsession” with Smith that is “sick and messed up,” and told Seaton that Cline is ”not somebody that you should rely on.”

He concluded his remarks that night with this advice for Seaton, regarding his public support for body and dash cams, in the context of the ongoing protests: “I’d have to say I wouldn’t be a lawyer if I didn’t tell you, you represent the county. They’ve threatened to sue the county, so it’s a good idea to be quiet.”

While Martin, as noted, later apologized publicly to Roots, Sheets and Moffett, he did not offer an apology to Cline or to Seaton for the insinuations that Seaton was tied to the body cam protests and thus, by extension, to the principals at Nexus Services.

Criminal complaint

Where this presents evidence of possible conflict of interest for the Commonwealth’s Attorney is, the matter before Martin involving the two Board of Supervisors members, Gerald Garber and Jeffrey Slaven, accused of trying to retaliate against a state employee, also involves Seaton.

The criminal complaint at the heart of the investigation was filed by Sheryl Helsel, an animal care inspector with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who alleges that Garber, who represents the Middle River District on the Board of Supervisors, and Slaven, who represents the North River District on the BOS, conspired to get her fired from her job because of her work with Seaton to address issues with the decades-long illegal assessment of impoundment fees by the regional animal shelter.

In the complaint, Helsel alleges that Garber and Slaven met with Dr. Charles Broaddus, the State Veterinarian, and David McGreevy, the deputy director of the VDACS regional office in Harrisonburg, in June to inform the two of Helsel’s plans to meet with Seaton to discuss the animal shelter fees issue.

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,” according to the complaint, 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.

The case for recusal

The allegations that Martin is being asked to investigate, ironically, involve a possible criminal violation of the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act – the irony here being, Martin himself could easily be viewed as being conflicted in the matter.

It’s still very much hanging out there that Martin directed strong comments at Seaton at the height of public protests around the Board’s discussions over policy regarding body and dash cams, and the comment that “(t)hey’ve threatened to sue the county,” the “they” being, by insinuation, the principals at Nexus Services, “so it’s a good idea to be quiet,” certainly could come across as unsolicited legal advice that would overstep the bounds of what an elected Commonwealth’s Attorney should be offering to an individual member of a Board of Supervisors.

Next, the criminal complaint filed by Helsel directly involves Scott Seaton; she is alleging that two Board of Supervisors members tried to get her fired from her state job because she was planning to meet with Seaton and speak in support of his position on a public policy issue in front of the Board.

Martin, who is on his way to being elected to a third term as Commonwealth’s Attorney; he is unopposed in the Nov. 7 general election.

Aside from this one significant slip-up, the remarks at the Oct. 12, 2022, Board of Supervisors meeting, for which he offered a public apology to three people mentioned in the remarks, Martin has presented himself as an able local prosecutor and honorable man.

But in this specific instance, related to the criminal complaint lodged against two sitting members of the Board of Supervisors in a matter involving a third who was the subject of a public dressing down by Martin, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t at least an appearance of a conflict of interest on the part of Martin.

Because of that, Tim Martin needs to recuse himself from the investigation of this case, and seek the appointment of a special prosecutor to lead the investigation.

Related story

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

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].