Judge: County owes Vines $11K in recall defense costs

Published 1:26 pm Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Isle of Wight could deduct roughly $8,500 from its obligation in the event Michael Vines’ insurance pays.

Circuit Court Judge Carl Eason, on Aug. 8, ordered Isle of Wight County to pay over $11,000 to School Board member Michael Vines in compensation for attorney fees he incurred defending himself against Windsor resident Lewis Edmonds’ most recent recall petition.

Eason dismissed Edmonds’ initial petition on March 29 after finding that none of the more than 200 county residents who’d signed it had attested to having done so under penalty of perjury. The petition had accused Vines 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 blank.

Edmonds began circulating a second petition in April that made the same allegations but included the required perjury warning. However, this too was dismissed when Eason ruled on June 22 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.

Per state law, if a recall petition is dismissed in favor of a local official, the court has discretion to order the locality to pay the official’s court costs and “reasonable” attorney fees. State law explicitly prohibits courts from imposing said costs solely on a petition’s organizer and signers.

Vines’ lawyer, Steven M. Oser of Suffolk, had sought just over $19,500, listing 34 hours billed to Vines at $400 per hour, plus an additional 26 paralegal hours at $175 per hour. Eason, however, capped the award at $300 per hour for 30.15 attorney hours, finding Oser’s rate “too high” for Isle of Wight and 3.85 of the itemized attorney hours “not reasonable.” He further capped the awarded paralegal fees at $100 per hour but allowed all 26 listed hours to stand, resulting in a total award of $11,645 in attorney fees and another $1,545 in court costs.

The costs only apply to those incurred from April 15, when Edmonds filed his second petition, to its dismissal in June. Eason, in March, declined to award Vines any court costs or attorney fees stemming from Edmonds’ first petition, citing that his dismissal had been on procedural grounds rather than the petition’s merits.

County Attorney Bobby Jones appeared at the Aug. 8 hearing to argue against the awarding of fees. There, he argued the fees were not “reasonable” since Vines “had the ability to have counsel provided for him” at a cap of $200 per attorney hour and $95 per paralegal hour through the VA Corp insurance all School Board members receive. Eason ultimately rejected Jones’ argument, but in his order he allowed the county to deduct whatever insurance payout Vines receives from its attorney fee obligations.

In the event Vines’ insurance pays the listed amount, Isle of Wight would be off the hook for roughly $8,500.

Suffolk Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Lily Wilder, who was named a special prosecutor for both petitions, also appeared at the Aug. 8 hearing in opposition to the awarding of fees, arguing Oser had gone “beyond the scope” of fighting the petition by devoting a number of hours to looking into an “ongoing investigation” pertaining to Vines’ economic interests statement.

Edmonds had accused Vines in each petition of having “failed to sign” his Dec. 13, 2021, economic interests statement. According to Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, state law explicitly requires copies of school board members’ economic interest statements to have their address and signature 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 Wilder was reappointed as special prosecutor for the April petition. In the search warrant’s accompanying affidavit, Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Kris Coughlin characterized Vines’ allegedly missing signature as “forging public records,” a Class 4 felony, and attests to having “personal knowledge of the facts set forth.”

Oser, however, argued that prior to Eason’s June 22 dismissal of the April petition, Vines had been preparing for the possibility of that petition going to a jury trial, at which Edmonds’ claims regarding Vines’ statement would likely come up. Eason ultimately agreed with Oser that the hours spent looking into the investigation were eligible as reimbursable attorney hours.

Wilder declined to comment on Eason’s ruling following the hearing, nor say whether the referenced investigation is continuing despite her role as special prosecutor having again ended.

Oser, speaking to The Smithfield Times following the hearing, noted Vines “has not been questioned” by law enforcement regarding the alleged investigation.

Vines was not present for the hearing, but he applauded Eason’s ruling and ascribed racist motivations to Edmonds and the petition signers, speaking to the Times by phone after the hearing.

“Basically, because the board is predominantly Black, they were trying to get me, a Black man, removed from the board,” Vines said, referring to Edmonds’ efforts as “purely political” and a “witch hunt.”

Edmonds, speaking to the Times following the hearing, applauded Eason’s having reduced the award from Oser’s original $19,500-plus request and encouraged the Sheriff’s and Commonwealth’s Attorney’s offices to “conclude their investigation” ahead of the Nov. 8 special election, where Vines will face challenger Jason Maresh for the Windsor-area seat on the School Board.

Edmonds called Vines’ allegation of racism “baseless,” and noted that none of the three other Black School Board members had faced recall petitions this year.