Following opening arguments and the start of the plaintiff’s case, including presentation of its paper trail of nearly 50 Exhibits, we counted 48, it contends will illustrate Truc “Curt” Tran was not an unwitting but active accomplice of former “Warren Economic Development Authority” Executive Director Jennifer McDonald in acquiring a total of $11,913,308 in EDA loans and payments under false pretenses, a Warren County Circuit Court civil case jury was released for the weekend at 4:23 p.m. Friday afternoon, July 22. Attorneys, the media, and a few observers followed the jury out of the courtroom and courthouse two minutes later.
The evidentiary portion of the plaintiff’s case, which included its first three witnesses, hit a snag when lead EDA attorney Cullen Seltzer announced the plaintiff’s next evidence, a video of portions of a deposition interview of defendant “Curt” Tran. Defense counsel Gregory Melus objected to the introduction of that evidence. After the jury was sent out of the courtroom, Melus told the court he had not had time to review the video, having only seen a transcript of those sections of the deposition of Tran by plaintiff counsel. He also objected to the video being introduced, as opposed to the text of the deposition which the plaintiff had originally sent him.
After hearing from both sides, Judge Bruce D. Albertson overruled the defense objection to introduction of the video, but offered to recess the trial to Monday to allow Tran’s attorney to review the estimated hour-long video. Subsequent discussion with counsel indicated the plaintiff may complete presentation of its case Monday. Asked by the court if he was able to open his case at some point Monday, could he complete it by Wednesday, Melus replied in the affirmative. With that positive time-frame looming, if possibly with some longer days to achieve it early in the week, Judge Albertson allowed the perhaps unexpectedly early adjournment on the trials opening day. With the jury dismissed with instructions to avoid discussion, media or social media accounts of the case, and no further matters for consideration by the attorneys, court was recessed at 4:25 p.m. until 9 a.m. Monday.
Prior to that adjournment, in addition to introduction of its paper trail, EDA attorneys called three witnesses. They were in order of appearance, former Warren County and EDA attorney Dan Whitten, Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) Assistant Director of Accounts Solutions Debbie Melvin, and Jennifer McDonald. Whitten was on the stand for over three hours, 1-hour-38-minutes on direct, and 1-hour-43-minutes on cross examination as counsel for both sides attempted to paint their contrasting evidentiary “roadmaps” of the case.
And as in the three earlier EDA civil liability trials this month, those contrasting “roadmaps”, or theories of the case, revolve around whether defendants were, pick one:
1 – Like the EDA itself, lied to and taken in by McDonald misrepresentations, and victimized themselves due to the EDA’s inability to provide adequate oversight of the alleged criminal actions of its executive director, or:
2 – Were willing participants in individual portions of the series of schemes McDonald is alleged to have hatched between 2014 and 2018 to defraud the EDA out of as much as $21 million dollars in assets to her own, and the benefit of others willing to provide needed “outside” the EDA co-conspirators.
The base compensatory claim of $11.9-plus million against Tran and his ITFederal LLC company is the largest in the EDA’s series of civil liability cases; and Tran has also filed a counterclaim for damages from a lack of EDA oversight of their former executive director. That former director McDonald made an out-of-court “no-fault” settlement for about $9 million in largely real estate assets in the EDA civil claim case against her in the wake of her bankruptcy filing. The only other million-dollar-plus jury award came last week when Donald Poe and his Earthright Energy Solar (ERE) were found liable for a base compensatory claim of $945,000, coupled with combined punitive damages against the two defendants totaling about another $300,000. All attorneys in the earlier civil trial cases have indicated they will file motions to overturn the verdicts based on a contention of inefficient evidence to convict.
Testimony by former EDA and County counsel Dan Whitten in the plaintiff’s case Friday noted former U.S. Sixth District of Virginia Congressman Robert Goodlatte’s championing of Tran and ITFederal as an economic development opportunity here at the former Avtex Superfund environmental remediation site. Whitten testified that both McDonald and Goodlatte presented Tran as a successful Northern Virginia businessman, with a $140-million federal government contract with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the basis for his planned Data Center development based out of a 28,000 square foot building on a 30-acre parcel at the Avtex/Royal Phoenix Business Park. However, it turned out that federal contract was an “IDIQ” (Indefinite Demand Indefinite Quantity) that essentially puts one in a position to bid on coming government contracts, rather than any guarantee of a contract.
The Goodlatte-championed ITFederal project also suffered financially when it didn’t qualify as an EB-5 Visa project. Whitten noted the EB-5 program was utilized nationally to encourage foreign investment in the millions in local economic development projects in the U.S. in return for “green cards” and family access to U.S. citizenship. Not testified to was the fact that the program has a rather notorious reputation for not usually realizing exactly what was promised in the way of financial support at the outset.
Whitten testified that Goodlatte had suggested the $10-million loan to ITFederal and Tran to illustrate to the media and public a working cooperative relationship between a local municipal EDA and the private sector. Whitten said that Goodlatte even said that Tran didn’t really “need” the loan, but that it would be a good public relations effort. Whitten testified that the EDA had anticipated that the loan would be short-term as more of a public relations effort, than an actual business loan. That helped explain the EDA board’s acceptance of McDonald’s representation that Tran was going to be an “anonymous investor” to the tune of $8 million in a planned Criminal Justice Academy project.
Responding to a question, Whitten also said Tran had never come to an EDA Board of Directors meeting during the ITFederal recruitment, proposal, loan acquisition, and planning process. In fact, he said he, as EDA counsel, had never previously met Tran.
McDonald was on the stand a rather brief time compared to her previous EDA case appearances, three minutes for direct, and two minutes for cross examination. Asked about her interactions with Tran, and a false claim of VEDP grants for the ITFederal project at Avtex by EDA counsel, McDonald invoked her 5th Amendment right not respond at risk of self-incrimination a total of eight times. She added two 5th Amendment replies to cross examination questions, before defense attorney Melus cut his questioning off.
Plaintiff second witness Debbie Melvin testified that after one meeting with Tran in 2016, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership never received follow-up information sought from Tran about his company to verify its eligibility for a Virginia Jobs Investment Program grant, and that VEDP never authorized any grant funding for the ITFederal Avtex project or any Tran project in Warren County. Earlier Whitten testified that the EDA didn’t find out that paperwork indicating that grant was achieved had been forged, apparently by McDonald, until the EDA financial scandal investigation was underway in 2018-19.