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Walk the line

It’s a tad short of being Scooter Libby and Karl Rove outing Valerie Plame, but the outing of Francis Chester’s tax problems in Augusta County last week appears to have a similarly sinister backstory all the same.
Yes, what I’m saying here is that it seems to have been an orchestrated campaign to discredit Chester, a Churchville attorney who has been leading the legal fight against the 2009 county reassessments, that led to those newspaper headlines last week.

I found that out today in the process of doing a background check into how the story got into the public limelight. It was going to be a column in which I was going to tread lightly, because, hey, you’re supposed to pay your taxes, and it’s hard to get too indignant about it when you’re writing about somebody who didn’t.

A second reason to tamp down has to do with my feelings about Chester’s role in this reassessments fight. Personally I wonder if he’s anything more than a sideshow distraction from where the attention needs to be regarding the decisionmaking process of the Board of Supervisors with respect to the conduct of the reassessments.

And then third and perhaps most significant is that I know that information about delinquent local taxes is public information, and I wanted to assume that it was enterprise reporting on the part of someone in the local media that led to the headlines.

As much as I wanted to assume, though, that it was a quick-witted news reporter who came across Chester’s name on a delinquent-taxpayer list, and that’s how the story made its way into the public domain, I felt I knew better that it had to have been a story that was planted by someone, and Suspect #1 in that respect was County Treasurer Rick Homes, who earned that title by being the on-the-record source in the local newspaper accounts confirming the report that Chester had owed more than $2,500 in real-estate and personal-property taxes before paying the tax bills upon publication of the media stories about his predicament last week.

Turns out all Homes was doing was answering questions from newspaper reporters. Though those questions were indeed prompted, in the form of the indirect urging of County Administrator Patrick Coffield, after an effort had been made a week earlier by a member of the Board of Supervisors to plant the Chester story with a local TV outlet.

What I have been able to piece together as to how this story got the press that it did is that Coffield was talking critically after the final Board of Assessors meeting last week about the local media coverage of the reassessment controversy and in the course of doing so casually dropped in mention of Chester’s tax situation.

Word has gotten back to me of another instance from a couple of weeks back in which a member of the Board of Supervisors made contact with a local TV reporter to try to surreptitiously plant the same story, and a separate instance in which a second member of the Board raised the matter of Chester’s tax issues with a vocal critic of the Board majority’s handling of the reassessments in a private conversation in that same general time frame.

I get it that Chester should have been current with regard to his taxes, and I get it that this is public information, but come on, am I the only one seeing this as a smear campaign aimed at silencing criticism of the government a la the Plame affair?

The only difference here is that Chester doesn’t have to quit a job as a covert CIA operative as a result of this smear. He does have to deal with having had his name all over the local papers as a tax cheat, and again while that information was public information, it was only on the front page of the papers because he is involved in the pitched battle with the county over the reassessments.

Is this the kind of thing we can expect from county government from here on out? That people who raise questions about policy directions to the point of getting under officialdom’s skin can expect to have whatever dirty laundry might be convenient hung out on the public clotheslines?

The folks running the show at the Government Center have been borderline out of control for the past few weeks regarding their handling of the reassessments controversy, but they’ve crossed the line with this.

I don’t think of myself as the type person who goes around making threats about heads needing to roll, but we may just be getting to that point here.


– Story by Chris Graham

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