FRONT ROYAL, Va. - A Warren County judge has dismissed misdemeanor charges against the county's top officials in the ongoing scandal over $21 million in missing funds from the local economic development authority.
But with a legal effort underway to remove all five county supervisors from office and with state and federal criminal investigations continuing, the cloud hanging over the community 70 miles west of Washington is far from being lifted.
On Monday, Circuit Court Judge Bruce Albertson dismissed the charges of misfeasance and nonfeasance against the county supervisors, County Executive Douglas Stanley and current and former board members with the economic development authority over a legal technicality.
Those charges stemmed from the county prosecutor's contention that a lack of government oversight allowed the embezzlement scheme allegedly orchestrated by Jennifer McDonald, the authority's former director.
However, Albertson ruled that misfeasance and nonfeasance are not listed as crimes under Virginia's state code, according to attorneys for the defendants. Instead, they are civil allegations of misconduct, the judge ruled.
"We went to law school on that one," said David Crump, an attorney for the economic development authority's board members.
The result is that the government officials no longer face the possibility of a year in jail or a $2,500 fine, Crump said, adding that he did not anticipate an appeal to the judge's ruling. Bryan Layton, the county's acting commonwealth's attorney, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday.
But the ruling does not mean that Warren County's government will not continue to be scrutinized in the wake of the felony indictments of McDonald; her husband, Samuel North; and several other defendants - and after the scandal that took a tragic turn, when Sheriff Daniel McEathron, who was also accused of wrongdoing, killed himself in May.
Among other things, McDonald is accused of using authority funds to pay off credit card debts and buy properties through a limited liability company that she created with McEathron. She has said she is innocent of those charges.
Layton's office and local activists argue that the county's officials should have stepped in earlier to stop the criminal activity, which allegedly began shortly after a Northern Virginia developer arrived in Front Royal in 2014 with plans to turn a portion of the former Avtex Fibers Superfund site into a data center.
The developer, Truc "Curt" Tran, says he was an unwitting participant in the activities, though both he and McDonald are defendants in a lawsuit filed by the authority.
A recall petition seeking to remove all five of supervisors from office is awaiting a late-November hearing after it was filed in circuit court earlier this month, court records show.
Albertson on Monday denied a motion by Layton's office seeking to have the supervisors immediately suspended from their duties until the petition, signed by 941 residents, is heard, according to attorneys.
The effort could nonetheless hurt some of the supervisors at the ballot box in next week's elections.
"Anybody that has been involved in local politics needs to go," said Kristie Atwood, a local activist who has helped with the recall effort.
Several supervisors did not return messages for comment, while others declined to comment.
Demetrios Pikrallidas, an attorney for Supervisor Thomas Sayre, R-Shenandoah, said his client has been unfairly maligned.
"He's been put through the wringer on this for no good reason," Pikrallidas said.
He added that while Sayre publicly questioned McDonald about her activity as soon as he suspected something was wrong at the authority, it was difficult for public officials to know what was happening at the time.
"You're asking people to basically oversee everything, and that's just not possible," Pikrallidas said. "There was some smoke there, but no one really saw the fire."