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The State of NoVa
Posted at 12:26 PM ET, 01/31/2012

Costly legal battle over FOIA complaint continues in Loudoun

The legal bills will continue to add up in the costly courtroom battle between a local freelance journalist and the Loudoun County Board of Equalization, a case that began with a confrontation at a tax appeal hearing last summer and continued Monday with the testimony of Board of Equalization Chairman J. Scott Littner in Loudoun County District Court.

The details surrounding the encounter between Littner and freelance reporter Beverly Bradford at the June 28 meeting remain in dispute. What isn’t debatable is the fact that a single photograph that Bradford took during the meeting has spiraled into a multifaceted dispute costing Loudoun upward of $80,000 in legal fees — and sparked a power struggle between the Board of Equalization and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, which has refused to foot the bill for a case it wanted resolved out of court.

Littner testified for the first time Monday before General District Court Judge Julia T. Cannon. He was the only witness of the afternoon, but he won’t have the last word: The trial will continue with a fourth day of testimony Feb. 29.

Littner’s description of his interaction with Bradford, a freelance reporter for AOL Patch who took a picture of him at the June 28 meeting, contrasted with accounts offered by Bradford and other witnesses in prior testimony.

Bradford attended the meeting to observe a tax assessment appeal by the National Conference Center in Lansdowne, which was urging the BOE to lower a $49 million assessment on 112 acres of property – part of which was being eyed by the county as a possible site for a new high school.

As the board was in the midst of open testimony about the matter, Bradford left her seat and took a photo, Littner testified.

“There was a flash to my left, and when I looked, I saw Ms. Bradford returning to her seat,” Littner said.

In prior testimony, Bradford and other witnesses said Littner had a delayed but menacing response, approaching Bradford several minutes later to scold her for disrupting the proceedings. David McClure, Bradford’s attorney, told The Post’s Tom Jackman that Littner later interrupted the meeting a second time to once again confront Bradford.

In his testimony Monday, Littner claimed that he addressed Bradford only once and did not express anger or raise his voice. He said he asked Bradford if she was familiar with the BOE’s rule requiring advance notice before taking photographs at a meeting.

“I explained to her that I didn’t appreciate the disruption,” he said. Bradford was argumentative, wagging her finger at Littner and telling him “not to worry about what she was doing,” he said.

During a break in the hearing, Littner summoned a sheriff’s deputy: “I was seeking his advice on how to handle the situation with Ms. Bradford,” he said. “I did not want her to do what she did again.”

The deputy escorted Bradford from the hearing, though Littner testified that he did not specifically ask the officer to remove her. The hearing resumed, and the BOE voted to approve a $5 million reduction in the assessment on the NCC property. Loudoun County purchased 45 acres of the land in September, though the contract is not final – the supervisors voted this month to extend the due diligence review period, which ended Jan. 18, by 30 days.

In response to the incident at the meeting, Bradford filed a Freedom of Information Act complaint in Loudoun District Court. The Loudoun Board of Supervisors encouraged the BOE to resolve the matter out of court, but the BOE hired attorney John Flannery, who is accumulating substantial legal bills battling Bradford’s complaint. In response to the BOE’s demands that the Board of Supervisors pay the fees, the supervisors appealed to State Del. Joe May (R) to sponsor a bill that would grant the board authority to appoint and oversee the BOE, whose five members are appointed by the Loudoun County Circuit Court.

The case is expected to conclude after testimony from the deputy who escorted Bradford from the meeting, as well as final testimony from Bradford, at a hearing Feb. 29.

By  |  12:26 PM ET, 01/31/2012

 
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