Sweet, county staff cleared of conspiracy accusation

Pulaski County new logoBy MIKE WILLIAMS

The Patriot

A special prosecutor has cleared County Administrator Jonathan Sweet and other county staff of conspiring to harm Del. Marie March’s business or reputation.

Henry County Commonwealth’s Attorney M. Andrew Nester, the special prosecutor, reported his findings in a Nov. 15 letter to Lt. Steve Hall of the Virginia State Police’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney Justin Griffith.

Nester’s role as special prosecutor was to determine if enough evidence existed to open a formal State Police investigation into whether or not Sweet and county staff had potentially violated Virginia Code §18.2-499 – Conspiracy to Injure Another in Trade or Profession.

According to Nester’s letter, the statute requires at least two or more people each acting willfully and maliciously, and each with a common goal (i.e. a conspiracy), to damage a reputation, trade, business or profession.

Nester explained in his letter that he had been provided in June of this year by State Police two separate emails with attachments provided by Del. March.

The first email consisted of 22 pages of what Nester said appeared to be “screenshots, texts, email or social media messages.”

The second email included 27 pages of multiple months of meeting minutes from the New River Resource Authority. Nester said those minutes “tend to focus on an alleged data breach and a discussion of how that would be investigated and handled by the Authority.”

Nester said considering he had not been named a special prosecutor to investigate the data breach matter, he would not consider those documents in his review.

Nester said when the documents in the emails were provided to the State Police by Ms. March, she believed that she was the victim of the County Administrator and others for a violation of the conspiracy statute.

According to Nester, “A thorough review of the materials clearly show a disagreement between Ms. March and the County Administrator as well as the Planning and Zoning Coordinator for Pulaski County (Markie Saunders).

“As an outsider, unfamiliar with the government and political landscape of Pulaski County, reading these threads of messages, they seem to center on the fact that Pulaski County officials are attempting to work with Ms. March to secure a business license for the activities conducted at her multi-purpose venue (i.e. The Big Red Barn).  The thread appears to be a contentious, back and forth, exchange about the exact activities taking place at this location.

“In addition, there also appears to be a great deal of concern – perhaps legitimately – regarding the traffic pattern around this venue and the safety concerns that such presents when events are had at this property.”

Nester says in his letter, “It is clear to me the messages themselves have a coarse, churlish and, at times, an unprofessional tone.”

“However,” Nester continues, “Having read through them on more than one occasion, I cannot find the existence of any conspiracy, or even a hint of one that could be proven, on the part of Pulaski County officials to harm Mr. March’s business, reputation, etc. that would violate this statute.”

“Further,” Nester says, “I firmly believe it is the absolute duty of the Pulaski County officials to ensure that all business owners operate by the same rules; and that includes being properly licensed by the county to conduct business.

“Thus, the fact that the County Administrator properly, and politely, notified Ms. March of her need for a business license, and any potential ramifications of operating without one may bring, is certainly not illegal and could in no way be viewed as a way to injure her reputation, business, etc.”

Nester closed his letter by saying, “The bottom line, from my perspective and legal opinion, is that Virginia Code §18.2-499 has no application to these facts.

“I can find nothing in the provided documents that would offer even reasonable suspicion, much less probable cause, and certainly not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, for a violation of this statute.  Therefore, unless additional legally admissible, evidence is brought forward concerning this matter, no further action or resources need to be devoted to this complaint,” Nester said.

About the special prosecutor’s decision, Sweet expressed gratitude.

“I am grateful for the integrity of the Virginia State Police and the Special Prosecutor assigned to this case for objectively reviewing and processing the allegations leveled against me by March.  I have the greatest respect, trust and confidence in these institutions and the rule of law, and this is a prime example of it working,” Sweet said in a statement.

“In retrospect, the threats made by March appear to have been aggressively carried out by way of yet another pursuit of criminal charges against me for politely doing my job.  The most troubling aspect of all of this, is the continued abuse of her power and authority to have a state agency wrongfully investigate me in an attempt to bring criminal charges against me, and for absolutely nothing,” Sweet added.

“She repeatedly claims to be victimized by everyone, like it is her schtick, all the while she is the one victimizing innocent people.”

Sweet said March doesn’t owe him an apology, but she does owe one to Pulaski County and its citizens.

“She should not be allowed to continue to abhorrently behave like this without consequence.  I understand that there may be many others in the community that have been targeted as well, and I hope that information will also come to light and expose her liberal abuse of power.

“If March is going to continuously behave like this after winning only one election and being in office for a year, we have to wonder what she may be like if entrusted with further authority,” Sweet wondered.

Nester’s determination is the latest in a months-long feud between March and the county over The Big Red Barn, located at 4241 Lee Highway between Pulaski and Dublin.

The facility, which in the past housed a farm supply store and a lawn mower sales and service business, sits on a 10-acre lot, which March reportedly purchased for $400,000.

She reportedly has listed the property for sale with an asking price of $715,000.

The Pulaski County Republican Party has been holding its meetings at the facility, which also hosts a local church for its Sunday services.

The back and forth over The Big Red Barn between March and the county came to a boil in early August when March submitted an Open Forum letter to The Patriot in which she accused Sweet of “threats, bullying and intimidation.”

That prompted an Open Forum response from the county’s Planning and Zoning Administrator, Ashlyn Shrewsbury, who defended the county’s efforts to work with March to ensure the planned activities at The Big Red Barn comply with county zoning.

Along with her letter, Shrewsbury submitted to The Patriot several pages of copies of all correspondence between March and the county concerning the property.