A Loudoun County judge has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman (R) illegally obtained and published private e-mails of his Republican primary opponent and that he has illegally concealed the true source of campaign donations in his run for reelection.
The complaints that led to the special prosecutor’s appointment were filed by former sheriff and current independent candidate Stephen O. Simpson and former sheriff candidate Ron Speakman. Chapman defeated both in 2011. Both said they filed documented complaints with Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney James E. Plowman.
Chapman called the allegations “nonsense” and politically motivated, filed as the sheriff is running for reelection. The prosecutor appointed to investigate, Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan L. Porter, said he would not be able to launch his investigation until after the election because of prior commitments.
The investigation adds to a tumultuous election season for the first-term sheriff. He narrowly defeated a former top deputy for the Republican nomination in the spring, then another former deputy was indicted in federal court for embezzling from the sheriff’s office, followed by the recent arrest of a current deputy for allegedly assaulting a prisoner.
Plowman, who backed Chapman’s primary opponent, Eric Noble, said he recused himself because his office works closely with the sheriff’s office, and referred the complaints to Loudoun Circuit Court. Last month, Circuit Court Judge Jeanette A. Irby issued orders appointing Porter to investigate the matters.
Porter said that simply because he was appointed “does not mean in any way that any wrongdoing has occurred, nor should such an inference be made.” But because he is about to begin the triple-murder trial of Charles Severance in October, Porter said he would be “unable to commence a substantive investigation until early December,” after the sheriff’s election, and he would not be making any further comments on the case.
Chapman ridiculed the source of the complaints. “We have 380,000 people in Loudoun County,” he said, “and you’ve got two people making complaints that I clobbered in the last election. That would raise some serious suspicions with everybody.” He said Plowman sought a special prosecutor only because “he clearly has been against me for the last couple of years. To give this any play is more nonsense. It gives those guys a platform.”
Speakman’s complaint alleges that Chapman illegally obtained private e-mails written by Noble, his potential political opponent, and then illegally published them.
To access e-mails, documents show that Chapman’s internal affairs office in September 2014 asked Fairfax County for copies of e-mails from a retired Loudoun deputy who had begun working as a civilian contractor for Fairfax. Chapman’s internal affairs deputy, Ron Weckenman, told Fairfax that he was looking into the retired deputy’s “misuse of his Fairfax e-mail account” while communicating with sheriff’s employees “working in collusion against the Sheriff,” according to the e-mails provided to the retired deputy, former Maj. Ricky Frye.
Many of Frye’s e-mails had been sent to or received from then-Maj. Noble, who was preparing to challenge Chapman for the Republican nomination in 2015. Weckenman and Chapman did not seek a search warrant or a subpoena for Frye’s “fairfaxcounty.gov” e-mails, and Fairfax did not require one. Records show Fairfax turned over Frye’s e-mails in three days.
Chapman said in March that he learned of Noble’s political plans through e-mails that were unearthed in an unrelated investigation in the summer of 2014. He investigated and moved to fire Noble for undermining him, but Noble retired.
But in at least one campaign mailing this spring, Noble’s private Gmail address was printed twice in a Chapman mailer, and the full text of two e-mails between Noble and Frye criticizing the sheriff was also published in the mailer. Chapman said it was legal to publish them because they had been legally obtained and legally released.
Speakman, a recent law school graduate, said, “The sheriff used the power of his office to illegally collect private information,” namely Frye’s personal e-mails on a Fairfax County account, “to and from the sheriff’s political opponent, Mr. Noble . . . then published on a computer web site and a political advertisement Mr. Noble’s private words.” He said that even though Frye’s e-mails were written on a government Web site, under Virginia law, private communications may not be released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) unless a warrant or subpoena is obtained.
The allegations “likely constitute a felony crime that appears to have been committed with the intent to obtain an advantage over an opponent in an upcoming election,” Speakman said. Chapman narrowly defeated Noble in a Republican county convention in May.
Chapman said the e-mails were reviewed by the Loudoun County attorney and legally released under a FOIA request to Brian Reynolds, a campaign assistant to Chapman, and then published by Chapman’s campaign in a mass mailing. He said anyone using a government e-mail address, such as Frye, knows “all that stuff is FOIA-able. Anything I used was a matter of public information.”
Speakman and two FOIA legal experts said that may not be true. If an e-mail is “about personal business,” said Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, “it is not a public record even if it was sent from or received by a .gov address.”
Chapman is facing Democrat Brian Allman and Simpson, a former Republican now running as an independent, in the fall election. In reviewing Chapman’s campaign filings, Simpson noticed something unusual: Chapman has not reported a single donation from any company or corporation. Instead, individuals who are affiliated with companies are reported as the contributors.
“He’s trying to hide the fact that these are corporate contributions rather than personal,” Simpson said. He said at least two of the companies who are not disclosed as donors are either current contractors with the sheriff, such as the jail’s medical services provider, or trying to win a contract from the sheriff, specifically a local towing company. Simpson said that a review of the actual checks would show who the true donors are and that misrepresenting the source of the donors would be illegal.
Chapman said he filled out his own contribution reports and was not trying to conceal the source of donations. He noted that the companies involved are listed in the column next to the individuals’ names, and “everything’s disclosed. If I inadvertently put it in a wrong column, I’m happy to change it.”