The Freedom of Information Act fight that started when Beverly Bradford snapped a photo at a Loudoun County Board of Equalization meeting last June still isn’t over, even after a four-hour hearing Wednesday in the fourth day of proceedings.
Board of Equalization Chairman J. Scott Littner, attempted to seize Bradford’s camera and have the offending photo (above) deleted, summoned a sheriff’s deputy to perform such task, and conducted a controversial vote once the deputy escorted Bradford out of the room.
When Bradford filed a FOIA complaint against the Board of Equalization, Littner hired an outside lawyer who has run up a $55,000 bill. That caused a second fight with the Board of Supervisors, which didn’t want to pay that bill and hired its own lawyer, at a cost of $28,000. The supervisors then sought legislation to take over the Board of Equalization, so they wouldn’t have these fights in the future.
Those side battles are now resolved. Last month, the two boards agreed to cap the legal bills of Leesburg attorney John Flannery at $55,000, though the equalization board originally sought $60,000. And the legislation to transfer oversight of the equalization board to the supervisors got no traction in Richmond.
But if Loudoun General District Court Judge Julia T. Cannon rules in Bradford’s favor, she could award Bradford her legal fees, which are nearly $17,000. That would take the cost to taxpayers for the whole affair to almost $100,000.
Over the course of several hearings dating back to October, the witnesses in the room gave differing accounts of who did what. The hearing involved an appeal by the National Conference Center in Lansdowne over its assessment.
On one side of the room sat the county’s assessors, ready to make their case. Bradford sat to their right. To their left sat the attorneys for the conference center.
Two of the county’s staff, including County Assessor Todd Kaufman, along with Bradford and a neighbor of hers, attorney Deborah Piland, all testified that Bradford snapped one flash photo while seated. All four testified that Littner stood up, walked over to her and demanded the camera, Bradford’s lawyer, David McClure, said.
Littner and fellow equalization board member Ed Maurer gave a different story. They said Bradford stood up, walked to the middle of the hearing room, stood directly in front of them and snapped the photo. They testified that when Littner asked her what she was doing, Bradford told them to mind their own business. And that Littner never stood up and interrupted the meeting to approach Bradford.
Almost like two separate hearings, right?
But there’s no doubt that Littner recessed the hearing and summoned Deputy Sheriff Dale Gardner. Gardner testified Wednesday that he met with the board members, and that Littner told him to take Bradford’s camera, and that ”they wanted the photos destroyed.”
Gardner said he told the board members he didn’t have the authority to take anyone’s camera. But he agreed to speak with her, and he did ask her to destroy any photos or recordings. He said Bradford declined.
The deputy asked Bradford to go outside the room with him, which Bradford reluctantly did. They spoke for about 10 to 15 minutes, Gardner said, during which time the board voted to reduce the National Convention Centers’s assessment, which Bradford was interested in following for Patch.com, though she wasn’t on assignment that day.
Meanwhile, County Attorney John R. Roberts heard about the hubbub and stopped by the meeting. McClure said Kaufman testified that Littner commented, “I have to threaten to arrest a reporter to get the county attorney to come to a hearing.”
Kaufman also testified that Maurer said of Bradford, “I want her barred from this meeting and I want her barred from all future meetings,” McClure said. Bradford testified she heard the same comment.
Last month, the chairmanship of the BOE rotated from Littner to Maurer.
McClure argued that all of these actions constituted a violation of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, and that Cannon should find the board of equalization had broken the law. Bradford is seeking a order that the board stop doing that; FOIA training for the board; her legal fees of $16,000 and a $2,000 donation to the Virginia Literary Fund. If Cannon grants that request, it would take the total cost of the episode well over $100,000.
Flannery, the board’s lawyer, said Bradford’s actions were disruptive of the meeting and that in her filings before she hired McClure, “she has proved herself a liar.” He noted she didn’t give up the photo in question, it was published, and that the “BOE was absolutely justified in its conduct.” The board has a rule that anyone wishing to take photos must notify the board in advance, and he said Bradford didn’t do that.
McClure said the advance notice rule didn’t give the BOE reason to violate the Freedom of Information Act. He observed that the board of equalization does not post an agenda on its Web site or publicly provide any information about any of the tax appeals it is considering. The board posts a list of upcoming cases on the door to the meeting room, the board’s administrative assistant said.
Cannon is expected to issue a written ruling soon.