UPDATE, Monday 10:38 a.m.: Fairfax City announced that Scott Silverthorne will resign as mayor this Thursday.
ORIGINAL POST: As Scott Silverthorne sat in the back of an unmarked Fairfax County police cruiser at Tysons Corner on Thursday night, his endlessly political mind undoubtedly pondered the next step in his disastrous evening. He had just been arrested for allegedly giving methamphetamine to an undercover officer. Now, the mayor of Fairfax City would appear in a mugshot that would accompany him for the rest of his life. So when he entered the booking area on the first floor of the Fairfax County jail and stood before the camera, he had a decision to make — and he cautiously smiled, rather than offer the grim, despondent expression of most mugshot subjects.
And then the mayor signed some papers and went home on a personal recognizance bond. Meanwhile, the two men who were arrested with him, apparently a married couple from Takoma Park, were given a total of $7,500 in bonds and spent the night in jail.
Will Silverthorne, 50, ever have to spend a night in jail? Possibly not. But it will depend on what arrangements he made with the police in advance of their meeting at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Tysons, and whether his Fairfax County prosecutors and judge see the alleged transaction as an “accommodation,” with no expected benefit for the mayor, rather than a standard “quid pro quo” drug deal.
Silverthorne did not respond to my requests for comment, but he has texted with other reporters. He is a lifelong Fairfax City resident with no prior arrests, which no doubt contributed to a magistrate’s decision to let him leave jail without having to post bond, but it appears he provided a home address at which he does not live. Magistrates don’t like that. He was just reelected in May to his third two-year term as mayor. His father previously served as mayor, and Silverthorne first joined the city council when he was 24 and was on the council for 18 years before stepping down in 2008, reportedly to enter drug rehab, according to two longtime acquaintances. His past, both political and personal, will undoubtedly factor into whether the mayor ever serves any time behind bars.
This was not a run-of-the-mill drug buy-bust for the Fairfax officers, as made clear by their detailed news conference Friday morning. They had been told that the mayor of Fairfax was hooking up with people from a website, Capt. Jack Hardin said, and that on at least one occasion he had communicated with a man on the site, “met and exchanged methamphetamines for sex.” So the police created a phony profile specifically intended to hook Silverthorne, Hardin said, and within two days the mayor responded. That would indicate that the mayor was not new to this sort of thing, but it’s also not illegal to arrange for consensual sex online.
I asked Hardin whether drugs were known to be explicitly included in such arrangements. “No,” he said, “but I believe that’s the culture of this type of website.”
What happened next is crucial to Silverthorne’s future. Some sort of online communications were had, allegedly between an undercover officer and Silverthorne, and the mayor “believed we were going to go to a hotel,” Hardin said. But was it a prostitution-type arrangement, where the buyer is trading drugs for sex? Or is it a party, with one of the participants merely bringing drugs to liven things up? If it’s the former, that’s a drug deal, with the provider expecting something of value in return. If it’s the latter, that’s an “accommodation” by the provider, with no expectation of receiving anything of value.
The difference in terms of possible sentencing is huge. Felony distribution of methamphetamine, Silverthorne’s main charge, can bring years in prison if it’s a drug deal. If his attorney, his longtime friend and Fairfax City resident Brian Drummond, can persuade prosecutors that the alleged transaction was an accommodation, as three separate defense attorneys immediately said when apprised of the facts, he could bring the mayor’s sentencing guidelines down to a range of roughly nine to 16 months, and that brings a possibility for probation or drug treatment diversion into the picture.
How the situation played out in the Crowne Plaza parking lot was somewhat tragic, somewhat comical. Hardin said the agreement was that each side would have three people, and the mayor allegedly showed up with Caustin McLaughlin, 21, of Takoma Park, and an unidentified third man. The police only showed up with two people, Hardin said. Silverthorne “was supposed to bring the meth with him,” Hardin said. But the alleged supplier of the meth was late, and so the two cars of people waited in the parking lot for 20 to 25 minutes, Hardin said. Finally, the supplier showed up, and Hardin said other officers watched the mayor meet the supplier and obtain a couple grams of meth. The supplier went into the hotel. Silverthorne went to the undercover officers and allegedly provided them with the drugs. He and McLaughlin were arrested. McLaughlin put up a fight and was Tasered, Hardin said. He was also charged with possession of a controlled substance, so he may have brought his own supply, allegedly.
The police then went into the hotel and arrested the alleged supplier at the Crowne Plaza bar, Hardin said. The arrested man was Juan Jose Fernandez, 34, who listed the same home address as McLaughlin. Court records show that in October 2014, McLaughlin sued Fernandez for divorce in Prince George’s County Circuit Court. The case was dismissed several months later because of inaction. The inference would be that McLaughlin and Fernandez are married, which makes the arrangements for Thursday’s tryst interesting but probably irrelevant legally.
When Silverthorne, McLaughlin and Fernandez were taken to the Fairfax jail, Silverthorne only pulled one felony, distribution of meth, and one misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. McLaughlin and Fernandez got both charges plus a second felony, possession with intent to distribute meth, and McLaughlin earned a felony obstruction of justice for his dust-up with the Taser. Neither appears to have criminal records but do live in Maryland, a magistrate’s consideration in whether to grant bond. And although Silverthorne was allowed to sign a personal recognizance bond, he then provided an address in Fairfax City that my colleague Antonio Olivo visited Friday. He was told that Silverthorne did not live there. This could be an innocent mistake, but it will not be well regarded by the magistrates or prosecutors.
Can Silverthorne come out of this with no jail time? The details of the transaction are one factor. Another factor is Silverthorne’s personal history, which includes not only the reported trip to rehab in 2008 but also the foreclosure of a house in Palm Springs, Calif., in 2013, the loss of his job, filing for personal bankruptcy and the foreclosure on his Fairfax City house in 2015, all of which are indicators of someone in deep trouble of some sort. (He also contracted squamous cell carcinoma on his neck but received treatment and continued to work through it.) And then there is the public nature of his arrest, which made the ABC network news, and his elected position as mayor, even though that’s a part-time, poorly paid job.
It puts Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh in the spotlight, again, with a decision on whether to ask for jail time, in the event of a guilty plea. If the mayor decides to plead guilty, a Fairfax circuit court judge would decide whether Silverthorne, as a first-time offender, is deserving of “diversion” with drug and mental treatment rather than jail time. There are some great variances on the Fairfax bench in terms of those who prefer jail and those who prefer diversion. Some might feel that the public humiliation Silverthorne will endure is penalty enough. A standard meth deal with officers would not have quite so many factors involved, or the world watching.
But the case has not reached circuit court yet. Silverthorne and Drummond could decide to fight the case, try to get the charge dismissed or take it to trial and win an acquittal. All of which would keep the mayor in the spotlight for an uncomfortably long time. Whether Silverthorne tries to stay in office is another decision he has to make. He is beloved by many in Fairfax City, known as a hard-worker with an undeniable love for his home town. But his downward spiral likely has not hit bottom yet.