Residents of Spotsylvania County, Va., are calling it "Spotsygate."
For more than a month, news of a federal and state investigation into nearly 20 years of Spotsylvania County government records has had residents buzzing in this fast-growing community, which straddles Interstate 95 about 50 miles south of Washington.
A federal grand jury in Richmond met this week behind closed doors to hear testimony from a Spotsylvania zoning official and a county businessman involved in local land deals. Three other businessmen were subpoenaed and told to stand by to testify next month, according to one of them.
Sources who said they have been interviewed by FBI investigators off and on since 1988 say many of the questions about Spotsylvania's affairs center on zoning, land sales, and the approval of sewer and water lines, which have opened vast tracts to development. In late June, investigators visited the County Administrator's Office three times to examine board minutes and files dating to the mid-1970s.
The FBI, Virginia State Police and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Richmond would not comment on the investigation.
Speculation is rampant in the county about the probe. Some call the investigation "a fishing expedition." Others say it results from the county's unbridled growth, which they say has spawned blurred lines between public interest and self-interest.
"It's the tremendous growth in a very short time," said resident Michele Schiesser, who this year unsuccessfully sought to be appointed to a County Board seat. "It provides opportunities for financial gain."
Located halfway between Richmond and Washington, and bisected by Interstate 95, U.S. Route 1, and a major rail line, Spotsylvania has seen its population rise by 60 percent, its budget quadruple and the assessed real estate value triple in a decade.
Growth has in many instances occurred with little forethought. The county was without a planning director for most of the 1980s, and operated with an outdated 1980 comprehensive growth plan until 1987. Planners are now devising Spotsylvania's first water and sewer plan.
Recently the county has attracted attention from some of the Washington area's biggest developers: the Hazel family, Trammell Crow, Drigges Construction.
"It's nice doing business" in Spotsylvania, said Richard Hazel, son of John T. "Til" Hazel Jr. "It's not confusing. There are a few people who are the right people to talk to." Hazel is developing the county's largest project ever -- a 1,500-acre mixed-use project around a golf course on property near I-95 and U.S. Route 17.
One name that has surfaced in speculation about the investigation is that of Hugh A. Cosner, a Democratic former county supervisor who served 22 years on the board until he resigned abruptly in January, saying he was tired of being hounded by the media. Four of the witnesses who have been subpoenaed by the grand jury all have past or present business ties to Cosner.
However, several people interviewed by investigators said they had not been asked specifically about Cosner or any other individual.
Cosner's attorney, Mark Gardner, said he offered to make Cosner's records available to the FBI, but was never asked. Cosner also has not been subpoenaed to testify, he said.
Cosner did not return repeated phone calls.
Cosner, described by one Democrat active in county politics as "the most powerful man in Spotsylvania County," by all accounts is a wealthy man who owns extensive real estate as well as a successful chain of Pizza Hut restaurants with partner Raymond C. Glazebrook, one of the men subpoenaed to appear before the Richmond grand jury.
He won his last election with 84 percent of the vote, and was being widely touted for a spot on the Commonwealth Transportation Commission. He withdrew his name from consideration in late June.
Other businessmen with ties to Cosner who were subpoenaed are Jerry Leonard, who heads Leonard Construction Co., and Shirley Greene, a former state trooper-turned-businessman who now lives in North Carolina.
Spotsylvania businessman Harold Gardner, who testified before the grand jury this week, told a Fredericksburg radio station, according to United Press International, that some of the grand jury's questions to him had dealt with a 70-acre triangle of land known as Cosner's Corner. Gardner, who is the father of Cosner's attorney; Cosner; and about a dozen others once owned the land, which is bounded by I-95, Route 1 and the Route 17 bypass.
In 1986, the group sold the property for $2.4 million to W.J. Vakos Co., which is building a commercial development that will include a shopping center, a hotel and the county's economic development office.
Gardner also said he was questioned about former school superintendent Robert McDaniel, who was ousted last year.
McDaniel, who has said he was never given reasons for his dismissal, irked some supervisors when he refused to go along with their plan to install a sewer line that would serve a soon-to-be-constructed school administration building as well as nearby property planned for commercial development and owned by the School Board chairman. The School Board voted to extend the line only to its own building.