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HELP center responds to county letter

(*Note:  The Journal has obtained public documents cited in this matter as a result of numerous sequential requests of county officials and they have been properly provided in accordance with state law under provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.)

Project FAITH has provided a response to a July 1 letter from King George county attorney Eric Gregory that requested details about Project FAITH’s plans for proceeding with its HELP center project. But no actual financial details or project timeline was provided.


The response was dated Aug. 14 from Stephen R. West, who, at the time was ‘of counsel’ to Duncan Black & Associates, PLC, a law firm with an address in Northern Virginia. Curiously, that relationship had been terminated during the week following West’s letter, with Gregory informed of the fact by an Aug. 20 email from Duncan Black, saying that West “is no longer affiliated with Duncan Black & Associates, PLC.”

A subsequent email from West on Aug. 21 clarified that while Duncan Black & Associates was out of the picture, he had since been requested to continue to serve as legal counsel to Project FAITH, Inc. (PFI), “in all matters pertaining to the HELP Center undertaking.”

That same email also contained another ongoing request to nail down a time to meet with Gregory.

That meeting occurred last Friday, Aug. 23, with Froncé Wardlaw, Project FAITH executive director, along with a couple of Project FAITH board members, including Earlene Cumberlander joining county administrator Travis Quesenberry and Gregory. Quesenberry could not be reached for comment and Gregory said the meeting lasted about an hour, but did not provide further details.  

 

INTERESTS AND RIGHTS
The stated purposes of a first letter from West on July 22 had served to introduce himself to Gregory and propose a meeting to talk about the planned HELP Center. That short letter’s second sentence also noted, “We have been asked, and are presently engaged in assessing our client’s interests and rights pertaining to the Center undertaking, specifically with regard to the June 28, 2012 ‘Deed of Gift’ and ‘Performance Agreement’ entered into by King George County and PFI.”

But the nine-page Aug. 14 response letter contained no result of that assessment. Its only mention was in a footnote on page two, stating, “The content and scope of the reply offered here is limited to addressing the specific contentions to be found in the County’s July 1, 2013 letter to Ms. Ashton. No effort has been made or attention given to presenting Project FAITH’s affirmative arguments in support of its interests and rights with regard to the HELP Center undertaking.”

PROJECT FAITH RESPONSE LETTER
West’s lengthy letter of Aug. 14 contains various headings setting out Project FAITH’s reaction to seven “county concerns” restated from Gregory’s July 1 letter.

The response argues that PFI is not obligated to provide any detailed report or explanation “at this particular point in time,” noting the only reporting requirement is one to be provided at the end of each calendar year.

NO REPORT, NO BUDGET, NO TIMELINE PROVIDED
Gregory’s July 1 letter to Phyllis Ashton, president of the Project FAITH board, noted that the project “appears to be struggling.” It said the county sought to better understand the project’s present difficulties, and requested “your assistance in providing information and addressing certain matters that we hope will clarify the project’s viability.”

Gregory had added, “If you have letters of commitment, proposals, loan documents, or the like from prospective or actual funding agencies, your sharing these documents would be most appreciated.”

No revised plan, budget, financing options, prospective tenants or the like were provided in the lengthy letter from West.

Instead, the letter debated the request that such documents should be provided. It also blamed the county for the HELP center’s delays, in the first instance citing a long-term lease procured by the King George Health Department from a third party.

It stated, “If the completion of the HELP Center were proceeding in accordance with the planned schedule, PFI believes the Department would still be a viable tenant. To the extent that it may be established that the County, either by its action or inaction, is responsible for the delay, the repercussions of the loss of the Department as a Center occupant shall rest with the County, not PFI.”

The letter also cites the county for failing to secure a $700,000 Community Development Block Grant. The letter says that’s due to “the County’s not having provided the necessary lease commitment letters for the County agencies” that had been intended in the Performance Agreement to lease space in the proposed HELP Center.

Letters of support and interest in the facility from the local agency heads had been included in the application. But actual lease commitments would not be expected to be allowed under state procurement laws for competition required to obtain the best price and value sought.

The fact that no construction had yet been undertaken and no evidence provided of any funding to pay for the proposed project would likewise fuel reluctance to commit to future leases.

The letter continues debatable reasons as to “why” Project FAITH will not supply documents as requested, with or without facts to support its contentions. It debates selected language taken from the county’s letter of request for information and adds existential flourishes, noting, “the fact that very little in life is ‘certain’,” and employs analogies, saying, “A common identity so limited, simply cannot transform an ‘orange’ into an ‘apple’ for comparison sake.”

At its conclusion the letter asks for a meeting, saying, “Rather than producing information regarding the status of the Project and its plans moving forward in a ‘shot gun’ fashion, PFI would prefer to provide this material in an orderly and comprehensible manner. Much of the requested information and data can best be presented and reviewed via an oral presentation and discussion, as opposed to being submitted in written form.”

MALFEASANCE RE ALTERED LETTER?
Prior to requesting a meeting to talk about going forward rather than provide documents to the county, West spends two pages objecting to Gregory’s letter mentioning an altered letter and Wardlaw’s admission of responsibility for changing the date on a three-year-old letter that came from Rappahannock Community College in 2010, to make the date 2012.

West’s letter states, “Project FAITH and its Executive Director (Wardlaw) jointly note their strenuous objection to the County’s presentation of the issue involving the March 2010 RCC letter.”  

Though the term “malfeasance” was not charged or mentioned by Gregory anywhere in his July 1 letter, West brings it up in his letter. He states, “The contended alteration is far too feeble a basis from which to jump to the very serious and entirely unsubstantiated allegation of intentional and knowing malfeasance by our Client or its authorized representatives.”

West goes on to state, “In the absence of any countervailing proof, the alteration of the RCC letter’s date alone does not ‘evince’ any intention to misrepresent the College’s plans for participating in the Project as a future Center tenant.”

Though Wardlaw has publicly made comments and written about the alteration to public officials, while taking responsibility for it, she has said she herself did not make the change.

But she has never come up with any other reason why someone would alter the date on the letter.

ATTENTION IN LOCAL MEDIA
West further states, “It is not to go unnoticed how the County’s statements have gained significant attention in the local media and public discourse within King George County. Because of the profoundly serious manner in which these allegations are viewed by both Ms. Wardlaw and Project FAITH, Inc., along with their potentially significant repercussions, they will be addressed in their own right in a direct manner in a more appropriate medium.”

But it’s not only the public statements regarding the alteration of a letter that are newsworthy for the King George community. The entire issue of the county giving away 5.529-acres of prime real estate for a building project has been controversial from the very start, including the action taken on a 3-2 split vote by the Board of Supervisors in June 2012.

Arguing about wording and whose fault it is does not appear to be progressing the project forward.  

NOTICE OF DEFAULT IGNORED
Throughout his nine-page letter, West debates the contentions contained in Gregory’s July 1 letter to Project FAITH.

He bypasses and completely ignores the fact of a more recent Aug. 2 letter from Gregory that put Project FAITH on notice that it failed to comply with the terms of the Deed of Gift and the Performance agreement, as amended, regarding commencement of construction of a proposed HELP Center.

The reason cited for the default is because Project FAITH has “failed to commence construction the proposed improvements/HELP Center facility by August 1, 2013,” as defined by “at least the pouring of all footers.”

REVERSION
The result of default, according to the guiding legal documents is “reversion.” Reversion is the legal term used for the county to reclaim the 5.529 acres of donated land. The parcel is located on the north side of Route 3 (Kings Hwy) across a side street from the new Sheriff’s office building.

The Deed of Gift and Performance Agreement contain reversion clauses that appear to provide for a 60-day grace period to allow for a ‘cure’ prior to reversion of the title of the 5.529-acre parcel back to the county.

The successful delivery of the proposed HELP Center facility has always been about financing for the project, which has remained ephemeral. If actual financing becomes available, the project may go forward if it can meet the legal agreements’ timetables and other requirements.

But in the meantime, it would appear that the clock is ticking toward the 60-day cure period and whether the Board of Supervisors will take subsequent action to reclaim the land for the county.

Phyllis Cook

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