By Michael Laris and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Federal prosecutors have launched a far-reaching investigation into potential public corruption in Loudoun County, where officials have overseen billions of dollars' worth of development projects in one of the nation's fastest-growing areas.
Loudoun Commonwealth's Attorney James E. Plowman announced a joint investigation yesterday with the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, which will take the leading role. "It's kind of a waste of resources if we're both independently reviewing the same matters," Plowman said, adding that the combined federal-local effort "brings about a greater aspect of neutrality."
The announcement follows months of quiet interviewing by FBI agents, who have queried county figures about possible abuses of power by officials, and represents a major escalation of the scrutiny facing Loudoun, the officials with the power to approve lucrative development projects and those in the real estate industry with the most at stake.
It also came shortly before Loudoun's Board of Supervisors passed ethics measures designed to increase government transparency. As part of the reforms, the board voted to discourage supervisors from accepting campaign donations from developers and others with pending projects, and it agreed to disclosure guidelines that could expose potential conflicts of interest.
The investigation and board action come after reports by The Washington Post last month that 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. Developers, landowners and others profited as they coordinated with public officials to influence land-use decisions in the county, e-mails and other records showed.
Plowman, who last month said his office was focusing on eight or nine areas of inquiry, said in a statement that the joint group "will be tasked with reviewing any potential issues of public corruption within Loudoun County." It was unclear which individuals or specific actions are being investigated.
U.S. officials would not discuss their role in the probe. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, Jim Rybicki, said, "Department of Justice policy does not allow us to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation." An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.
People interviewed by the FBI in recent months said agents asked them in wide-ranging interviews if they had knowledge of any improper dealings by public officials.
The Post reported on the actions of Lawrence Beerman II, the former head of Loudoun's Planning Commission, who voted favorably on projects brought by companies with which he had business ties. They were a firm run by Peter J. Knop and his son, Peter R.Q. Knop, who operate a construction waste dump, and the home-building arm of Greenvest L.C. Beerman's activities have drawn the attention of the FBI, according to two people who were interviewed.
Beerman and the Knops were interviewed for The Post's report but declined to respond to additional written questions. A lawyer representing Greenvest said the company did nothing improper.
"The fact you have local law enforcement working with federal law enforcement is an indication of the seriousness of the probe," said Eric H. Holder Jr., a former deputy attorney general and U.S. attorney in the District. The investigation will now appear to be in "a quiet period, but just because federal officials are not commenting on what they are doing, that does not mean the investigation is not very active. . . . These things often take months, if not years, to resolve themselves."
Some Loudoun officials have argued that they forged close links to people in the real estate industry in an effort to serve residents and said that their votes and other public actions reflected what they thought was best for the county. Supervisor Bruce E. Tulloch (R-Potomac) was among the officials who, records and interviews show, worked closely with individuals who stood to benefit from his position.
"I embrace the investigation and look forward to the outcome," Tulloch said. "The sooner, the better." The allegations "need to be brought forward and people's names cleared," he said.
Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge) said that because of Plowman's ties to other Republican officials, Burton is "glad that someone other than the commonwealth's attorney is involved. . . . The public trust has been severely damaged. We need something to clear it up as soon as possible."
Chairman Scott K. York (I) asked that the board hold a closed meeting this month to discuss whether to sue a real estate agent and others over the purchase of 101 acres in Ashburn from the Islamic Saudi Academy Inc., a company affiliated with a conservative religious school in Fairfax County funded by the Saudi government. The county paid $13.5 million for the land with the urging of Tulloch, who had close ties with the broker.
The Post's series reported that the purchase price was substantially more than what another buyer said he was under contract to pay for the land.
Tulloch defended his actions and those of his friend Dale Polen Myers, a former supervisor who represented the Saudis in the sale.
"I'm proud of everything I've done on this board," Tulloch said. The land purchase "was a good deal for the county, and I don't regret that vote," he added, noting that the purchase had been approved unanimously by the board.
Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles), whose actions were also part of The Post's reports, defended his close communications with developers as proper and in the service of the community. Evoking his years in the Army, he said he lives by the strict code of ethics of a soldier and an officer.
"I don't take life casually," Snow said. "I don't take all of what we do here frivolously. A lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into this job."
Staff writer David S. Fallis contributed to this report.