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Loudoun Launches Probe Into Land-Use Decisions

By Michael Laris and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 27, 2007

Loudoun County prosecutors have launched a broad investigation into development decisions in the county and whether public officials or others acted improperly, Commonwealth's Attorney James E. Plowman said yesterday.

Plowman said his office is focused on "eight or nine areas of inquiry," but he would not name them, saying it would be inappropriate to do so now.

He said that, after an initial review, he would decide how to proceed, including whether to refer parts of the investigation to others in order to preserve public confidence in the inquiry. He noted that violations of Virginia's conflict-of-interest laws are misdemeanors.

"But we are going to be looking into any and all violations . . . which includes felonies, if there are any," Plowman said.

The Washington Post, in stories published this week, detailed how major land-use decisions in Loudoun have been dominated by a small network of public officials and their allies in the development industry. By coordinating with officials who took power in 2004, developers, landowners and others have profited as they influenced land-use decisions in the county, e-mails and other records show.

Public officials sometimes followed detailed instruction from those in the development industry on how to vote and what to say in public. Lawrence S. Beerman II, a planning commissioner who resigned last year, voted favorably on projects by companies with which he had business ties, according to records and interviews. Beerman did not answer written questions about his activities but said in an interview this summer that he had no conflicts.

In recent months, FBI agents have asked questions about land-use matters and official actions in the county, according to people who have been interviewed. Beerman's activities have also drawn FBI interest, two of those interviewed said.

County officials and residents in recent days have called for local and state law enforcement scrutiny of the actions by officials in Loudoun, where issues related to the county's swift growth dominate government decision-making.

"I'm glad to see he's digging into things. I'm looking forward to seeing what he finds and how deeply he digs," said Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), who has called on Plowman several times to investigate possible conflicts in the county.

"There is now a dark cloud of suspicion hanging over the Board of Supervisors, and the public trust, in my opinion, has been seriously damaged, and this needs to be cleared up one way or another," Burton said.

Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run), who broke with some of her Republican colleagues on development policies, said she welcomed the inquiries and called on the state attorney general's office to look into the matter.

"It's gotten shady," she said. "It's like old New York or old Chicago, and it should not be that way here in Loudoun County."

A spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office would not say whether the office is conducting an investigation.

Virginia's conflict-of-interest laws prohibit officials from accepting items of value, including business opportunities, that could influence their actions, and from voting on matters in which they have a "personal interest." The laws, however, do not prohibit public officials from participating in votes that benefit friends or political allies.

Some Loudoun officials defended their efforts to coordinate closely with those in the real estate industry. They said that their decisions were based on what is best for the county and that they did not gain personally from their positions.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (I-At Large) this week challenged Plowman's evenhandedness, saying that the commonwealth's attorney, who was elected as a Republican in 2003, "doesn't seem to find any conflict with members of the GOP."

Plowman said that he has approached conflict questions on their merits and that any criminal action will be prosecuted.

"The bottom line is, if a county official is accepting bribes or doing something criminal or illegal, I don't really care who they are, as far as their party affiliation. It doesn't really matter to me," he said.

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