Vines recall petition again dismissed

Published 12:57 pm Sunday, July 3, 2022

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Circuit Court Judge Carl Eason on June 22 dismissed Windsor resident Lewis Edmonds’ latest petition to recall Isle of Wight County School Board member Michael Vines.

Edmonds, who’s now twice tried to have Vines removed from his seat this year, filed his first petition on March 15, accusing the school board member of having made “wildly inappropriate, defamatory, and discriminatory” remarks at meetings and of “malfeasance” for having left most of his required statement of economic interests form blank.

When Eason dismissed Edmonds’ first petition on March 29, finding that none of the more than 200 county residents who’d signed it had attested to having done so under penalty of perjury, Edmonds was undeterred, and began circulating another in April – making the same allegations but this time including the perjury warning on the signature pages.

Eason, who characterized some of Vines’ remarks as having “bordered on rude,” ruled on June 22 in agreement with Vines’ attorney, Steven M. Oser, who’d contended that none of Edmonds’ claims met the “neglect of duty,” “misuse of office” or “incompetence” criteria outlined in state law that would allow the court to order Vines removed.

Vines is already to stand for a special election in November. He was appointed by a 2-1 School Board vote last fall, in accordance with state law, as Julia Perkins’ interim replacement after the retired teacher resigned midterm. Edmonds’ petition, Eason argued, essentially asks the court to “step in” and “rewrite the law.”

The March and April petitions had each taken issue with Vines’ having claimed during a discussion of his push for School Board member raises at a Feb. 8 constituents forum for members of his and board member John Collick’s voting districts that he was “an IT manager” who makes “$100,000 a year,” even though he’d left the employment section of his Dec. 13 economic interests form blank. At the same meeting, he’d invited his out-of-county relative Brandon Randleman to speak, but asked sheriff’s deputies to escort Smithfield-area parent Laura Fletcher from the lectern after she revealed she did not live in either district.

Suffolk Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Lily Wilder, who was named a special prosecutor for both petitions, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Eason that Vines’ conduct amounted to “incompetence” by potentially having a “chilling effect” on parents’ right to free speech.

“That right is limited. … Someone’s got to control the meeting,” Eason countered, adding that “criminal liability has to be determined first” before Edmonds’ claims of misconduct regarding Vines’ economic interest statements could be used to advance a civil action, such as a recall.

“I look forward to continue representing my community,” Vines said, noting he’d just Tuesday filed his paperwork to appear on the November ballot. “I hope that this tainted view that’s been presented to the public does not hurt me in the fall.”

Wilder declined to comment on Eason’s ruling.

Oser added that while he was “pleased with the ruling,” he was “extremely disappointed” that the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office had not yet concluded what he described in earlier court filings as a “quasi-criminal” investigation into the matter of Vines’ economic interest statement.

According to Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, state law specifically requires copies of school board members’ economic interest statements to have each board member’s addresses and signatures redacted. According to email records, Wilder contacted Briggs a day ahead of the March 29 hearing at which Eason dismissed Edmonds’ first petition, requesting an unredacted copy of Vines’ statement for “a criminal investigation for felony forgery of a public record.”

In the same email thread, Wilder notes she is “running against the clock,” and proposes a sealed search warrant, to which Briggs agrees.

But the warrant wasn’t issued or served until March 30 — one day after Eason’s dismissal of the March recall, but before she was reappointed as special prosecutor for the April petition. In the search warrant’s accompanying affidavit, Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Kris Coughlin characterizes Vines’ allegedly missing signature as “forging public records,” a Class 4 felony, and attests to having “personal knowledge of the facts set forth.”

When Oser subpoenaed the documents Coughlin obtained, Wilder responded on April 22 with a motion to quash Oser’s subpoena on the grounds that “criminal investigative files are privileged” and exempt from mandatory disclosure under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

Oser then deposed Coughlin on June 3, though Coughlin, through his attorney, declined to answer “anything related to any criminal investigation,” according to a transcript.

“If we have to, we will go forward to determine the facts … and what was the motivation for (the investigation),” Oser said.