A Fairfax County supervisor who is running for board chair hired a lawyer to investigate suggestions that his family acquired its five-bedroom home through a quid pro quo arrangement with two local developers.
Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) this week released his lawyer’s report, which called the accusations part of a politically driven “witch hunt” meant to smear the supervisor’s character.
The allegations against McKay, contained in a memo by two lawyers who will not say who paid them to write it, have injected an unusual level of drama into the crowded but mostly polite Democratic race for board chair.
McKay — the front-runner among four candidates in the June 11 Democratic primary — confirmed that a developer who is also a close friend built his family’s home in the Alexandria portion of his district.
But he called the memo’s suggestions that the price was a discount related to his support for the 2016 rezoning of a portion of the nearby Kingstowne Towne Center “borderline libelous.” Sale records show that McKay and his wife, Crystal, bought the home for $850,000 in 2017, slightly more than its assessed value.
“It’s totally false to suggest anything was done improperly or any special treatment was given,” said McKay, whose campaign agreed to pay $3,000 to have his lawyer investigate the allegations. “It was bought at market rate. He made a profit off the house. This is all smoke and mirrors that’s been made up by a political opponent.”
The memo about McKay began circulating to Fairfax officials and news organizations — including The Washington Post — in early March, from the email account firstname.lastname@example.org.
Initially, the sender insisted on anonymity. Later, in response to emailed questions, Solomon L. Wisenberg, a Washington-based partner with the law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, disclosed he had written the document with a colleague. Wisenberg declined to say who hired them to investigate McKay.
Two of McKay’s Democratic opponents — Georgetown University law professor Alicia Plerhoples and county school board member Ryan McElveen — said their campaigns were not involved.
The fourth Democrat seeking the nomination, developer Tim Chapman, declined to say whether he commissioned the research.
Republican Joseph Galdo, who will face the Democratic nominee in November, said he had nothing to do with the memo.
The memo uses public documents to suggest a timeline for the purchase of McKay’s house that coincides with the June 2016 rezoning of a five-acre portion of the massive Kingstowne development, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax.
The rezoning allowed residential development on the site, which is owned by the Halle development firm. The Fairfax Board of Supervisors approved the change unanimously.
The memo notes that Warren Halle, chief executive of the Halle Cos., has been a major contributor to McKay. Businesses affiliated with Halle have donated a total of $50,000 to McKay’s bid for chairman, public records show.
The memo also says that, around the time the vote on the rezoning was set to occur, Michael A. McGhan, McKay’s developer friend, was in the process of buying land on Roxann Road owned by Halle that eventually would include McKay’s home.
“The events in the Kingstowne vote and the property development are so close it defies credulity that they would not be related,” the memo states.
McKay said he did not know McGhan had purchased the land on Roxann Road until nearly a year after the rezoning, in spring 2017, when McGhan contacted him about the house he planned to build.
If McKay had a business relationship with Halle during the time the rezoning was being considered, under state law he would have had to disclose it as a conflict of interest. Former Fairfax supervisor John F. “Jack” Herrity was convicted of a misdemeanor in 1986 for failing to disclose a relationship with a builder.
The memo next appeared in late March as a post on the “Fairfax Underground” online community forum, with “Truth Fairfax” listed as the sender. In late April, an ethics complaint about McKay was sent by the same email address to the Board of Supervisors and other Fairfax officials, including County Attorney Elizabeth Teare.
County officials said no investigations into criminal conduct or a breach of ethics by McKay are underway.
Nevertheless, McKay’s campaign decided to hire Grayson P. Hanes — a veteran land-use and real estate lawyer in Fairfax — to investigate the memo’s claims.
Hanes, a senior counsel at the Reed Smith law firm, said he agreed to the assignment on the condition that he would be allowed to draw his own conclusions from land records and interviews. What he found, he said, were loosely connected facts assembled to make it appear that McKay did something wrong.
“This witch hunt should be rejected,” Hanes wrote in a May 9 report sent to McKay and the rest of the board.
For example, Hanes wrote, the original memo lists five smaller houses in the same general area of Fairfax that, at around the same time, sold for a price close to the $850,000 McKay paid. Hanes said those comparisons are faulty because the five houses were in more expensive neighborhoods than McKay’s.
Warren Halle, the Kingstowne developer, told Hanes he entered into negotiations with McGhan over the lot on Roxann Road without knowing that McKay eventually would buy a home there. McKay was not involved in the transaction, Hanes reports McGhan as saying.
Neither Halle nor McGhan responded to requests for comment.
McGhan and the McKays negotiated a purchase contract for a 4,300-square-foot home, while McGhan reserved a larger house he built across the street for his own family.
The McKays sold their old house and used the $292,400 profit they received as a down payment for the new place, while securing a $582,000 mortgage for the balance, Hanes wrote in his report.
McKay said he asked the county tax office to withhold his name from the listing of the new property on its website as a precautionary measure against being harassed — a move stemming from a 2014 incident with an angry constituent. The Nelson Mullins memo portrayed that request as an attempt to cover up the house purchase, even though McKay’s name is on publicly available purchase documents.
The memo was inaccurate, Hanes said in an interview, but it served to “create an atmosphere of a scandal.”
McKay’s primary opponents say the questions raised by the original memo merit further examination into supervisors’ relationships with developers, though they could not specify what McKay did wrong after seeing his response.
Given that the county board regularly decides land-use cases, “we need stronger internal board policies to try to keep developers at arm’s length,” Plerhoples said.
McElveen said that, despite McKay’s rebuttal, “I remain concerned about a conflict of interest.”
Chapman called the allegations “serious and troubling” and said the Board of Supervisors should seek an investigation.
Several board members said that the memo’s claims would be concerning if true but added that they are wary of the way they have been shared. “I don’t really like anonymous accusations, because you don’t know what the agenda is,” said Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock).
Board Chair Sharon Bulova (D-At Large), a McKay supporter, called the claims “really rotten.”
“Jeff is squeaky clean and careful and would never operate on the board or privately in a way that wasn’t completely ethical,” she said.
McKay said the memo “proves that anybody could say anything they want about someone and generate a story when it’s totally untrue.”