The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Friday, February 09, 2007


Jury award sends cold chills down the spines of Cumberland County taxpayers!

Failure by local officials to plan (or think) ahead costs taxpayers pretty penny (more like $850,000 and counting)!!!

The children pay for bad decisions of County officials… the parents too!

Just in over the wire services, a blast from the past in Cumberland County!

It seems that a jury just decided this week to award a plaintiff in a law suit against Cumberland County a judgment of $850,000. Read all about it in this morning's paper.

This matter was first reviewed in the Iconoclast back in March of 2006, when a story broke in Cumberland County about the local government’s questionable exercise of eminent domain to seize back a former county owned property from private party who had purchased the old Luther P. Jackson Elementary School and 20 acres of land on U.S. Route 60 in Cumberland County.

You can link to the earlier Iconoclast post on this story by clicking here.

At that time, the Iconoclast and a couple hundred million other Americans were absolutely outraged at the most recent legal trends allowing for more liberal exercise of the powers of eminent domain.

Eminent domain is of course a legal power of government and has historically been applied judiciously in cases where the public interests overwhelmingly justified the taking of private property for the greater public good. Eminent domain presumes that the owners, so relieved of their property through the process will be fairly compensated but that they have no option to keep the property.

In our view, eminent domain should not be used to cover up or correct dumb mistakes by public officials.

Be that as it may, and as we understand it, about four years ago County officials decided that the school building and 20 acres weren’t needed any more. So they sold the property to a Farmville area realtor, one Mary Meeks and her husband for $110,000. Twenty acres and buildings for $110,000 sounds like a pretty good deal for the Meeks.

Unfortunately, County officials woke up one day only three years later to realize that they had made a mistake.

The County school system really did urgently need the school buildings its classroom space and the surrounding grounds to meet immediate school enrollment requirements.

Who could have possibly guessed that the Cumberland County school enrollment might actually grow in just three years?! Are we to expect that Cumberland County officials have some kind of super powers to see the future? Or to think about the future? That kind of craziness expectation of foresight by public officials is almost akin to witchcraft!

Any hoo…

So what do you think these brilliant Cumberland County officials decide to do to correct the mistake? They seize back the building that they had just recently sold for $110,000 using the powers of eminent domain.

This is where the problems began.

It seems that there was a little difference in opinion concerning value of the property. Cumberland County officials have taken the position that $200,000 should do nicely for the Meeks’ time, trouble and investments. On the other hand the Meeks asserted that the property was worth more… a lot more.

So, in recent developments this week, a Cumberland County jury awarded the Meeks $850,000 in settlement of the case. This is less than the $2 million the Meeks one time asked but is over four times more than what the County was willing to pay and nearly eight times more than the Meeks paid for it.

This amount, $850,000, is a pretty serious blow to little Cumberland County which is generally known to be an economically disadvantaged community with a whole host of financial challenges and few resources available to address them.

With a reported population of only 9,017 living souls in the last census this jury award may wind up costing the taxpayers dearly… like about $94 for every man, woman and child living in the County.

Another way to look at it is that this mistake will cost every single family in Cumberland County $342!

And keep in mind... this is in a county that is known to be economically strapped and has recently resorted to the recruitment of a commercial "dump" as a center piece of their economic development strategy!

Some Cumberland citizens may have reason to be concerned. But the big loosers appear to be the school aged kids. One wonders what better investments in the Cumberland County Schools could have been made with that $850,000!

Presently, there are obvious questions concerning who was responsible for this disastrously costly and embarrassing lack of planning or even the most rudimentary foresight.

Who was in charge? What were they thinking?

Of course, county officials still have still have the option of appealing the jury’s award.

However, before Cumberland County officials do that they should be mindful than another court might just decide to slap them with a big punitive fine for contempt of good judgment and reckless disregard of the taxpayers interests!

NOTE: Also see "Eminent Domain Virginia Style"

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Henry County Sheriff’s Department investigation moves ahead with another guilty plea!

Far reaching charges of racketeering, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, money laundering, drug distribution and firearms offenses rain down on Henry County Sheriff’s Department!

Sloppy management or culture of corruption in law enforcement agency?

Crooks impersonating law enforcement?

Poor Henry County. They sure have had their share of set backs and embarrassments over the years.

In 2002, their then highly respected County Administrator Sid Clower got caught with his hand in the “cookie jar” and made off with whole truck load of public funds to help defray the costs of… how shall we say it…“lifestyle choices” that he had become accustomed to. Roughly $750,000 of public funds had been frittered away before County officials woke up and took notice that something might be wrong.

Now, just this past week, Ex-Henry County Sheriff Deputy Cornelia Bryant Cox admitted her responsibility in to charges that she lied to investigators about stealing “evidence” from the Henry County Sheriff’s Office. The evidence was $500 in cold cash! Of course this seems like small potatoes compared to the ex-County Administrator.

So what? Small potatoes indeed.

Retired Deputy Cox’s digression would not seem so bad if she was a lone rogue Deputy in an otherwise pristine law enforcement agency who might be unfairly giving all the other good Deputies a bad rap.

But alas, that isn’t the case. Oh no, that Deputy Cox is not alone. In fact she is far, far from being alone.

Yesterday, four more individuals plead guilty, including two former law enforcement personnel: former Captain James Keaton and former Vice Officer Travis Wilkins. The other two had no employment connection with the Sheriff’s office.

All totaled, retired Deputy Cox is just one of 20 other people, including an incredible 13 current and former deputies who were indicted as a result of an ongoing investigation of official misconduct in the Henry County Sheriff’s Department dating to at least 1998, including racketeering, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, money laundering, drug distribution and various firearms offenses.

Worst of all, the “top dog” himself, the High Sheriff of Henry County, H. Franklin Cassell is among the list of those indicted and awaiting his day in Court.

The recent FBI press release on this shocking story can be seen at this link.

What makes this story scary and unusual is the fact that it involves a significant law enforcement agency, it involves an on-going criminal enterprise, it involves many specific crimes over many years… at least back to 1998… and most shocking of all… it involves so many law enforcement officials of ranking from ordinary Deputies to the High Sheriff himself.

This case disgraces the uniform that was so proudly warn by Deputy Barney Fife!!!

But seriously folks, this case prompts observers to ask some burning questions.

How is it possible that this on-going criminal enterprise continued for such a long time with no one noticing? Since 1998 at least!

How is it possible that so many law enforcement officials, who are sworn to protect and serve the public safety could be drawn into this on-going criminal enterprise.

Why didn't someone drop the dime?

With so many law enforcement officials involved in the scams directly, who else knew that this was going on?

Who else suspected trouble but chose to turn away and do nothing?

Was this merely an unfortunate coincidence that so many corruptible personalities just happened to converge in the Henry County Sheriff’s Department?

Or is this a case of a festering culture of corruption that sent the wrong message that law enforcement officials were exempt from the laws that the rest of us are expected to follow?

This case is a long way from final resolution. It may take years. In the end, many of these burning questions will likely still lack satisfactory answers.

But the Iconoclast predicts that complete investigation will reveal that there were in the past abundant warning signs that were ignored, perhaps by good people who just didn’t care enough to do the right thing and the right time.

We will continue to watch this interesting case study of the culture of official corruption.

Note: The Iconoclast hastens to add that the Henry County Sheriff's Department is a fairly sizable law enforcement organization. Unquestionably there are innocent parties within that organization who bear no responsibility for this alleged wrong doing and are unfairly suffering the suspicion and distrust that this case has caused. It will be years before the damage is corrected. We extend our sympathies to those innocent parties. Those who may not have clean hands know who they are!