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Threat of Criminal Investigation Looms Over City Administration

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The threat of criminal prosecution has severed the lines of communication between the office of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and City Council's investigative committee.

Chief Administrative Officer Sheila Hill-Christian will not be providing written responses to questions posed by the City Council investigative committee tracking the attempted removal of the School Board and school administrative offices from City Hall Sept. 21. Hill-Christian informed the committee's chairman, Councilman Chris Hilbert, of her decision in a phone call late Wednesday afternoon.

"My understanding is that there has been a discussion about sending this to a prosecutor," Hill-Christian tells Style, "and I cannot ask people without legal representation to make statements that could be used against them."

Hill-Christian's decision not to provide answers about who authorized the transfer of funds to pay for the aborted eviction on Sept. 21, Hilbert says, has forced the committee to narrow its options. He outlined three potential courses of action:

  • Issue subpoenas to appear before the committee, an option widely viewed as unlikely because it might lead to a court battle over the mayor's executive privilege.

  • Write a report and submit it to the full City Council.

  • Ask Council President Bill Pantele to write a letter requesting a criminal investigation that would trigger the involvement of Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring.

    Hilbert says he has not conferred with other members of the committee on which option to pursue, but insists some action will be taken.

    The recent breakdown is weeks in the making, however. Hill-Christian wrote Hilbert a letter Feb. 27: "I can no longer in good conscience direct City employees to voluntarily present" before the committee, citing Council President Bill Pantele's comments in Style Weekly referring to the Sept. 21-related financial transactions as "money laundering." However, she said she would "gladly prepare a written response to the questions in [Hilbert's] letter."

    Since then, councilwoman and investigative committee member Ellen Robertson called Hill-Christian a "criminal" for money transfers related to the aborted School Board move. Robertson later rescinded her remarks and apologized.

    Councilwoman Kathy Graziano, also a member of the investigative committee, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: "I think it's in everybody's best interests if we just turn it over. ... We've gone probably as far as we can go."

    Commonwealth's Attorney Herring says he will not begin an investigation until someone from council, or the administration requests it. He says he's not sure if he would appoint a special prosecutor, but says he is certain he will not request a federal prosecution.

    "This is about moving money from one expenditure code to another, this is not about stealing money," Herring says. "There will be no request on my part for federal involvement."

    Hill-Christian says introducing criminal charges is no way to sort out the matter.

    "Wouldn't the first thing you'd do be to sit down and say 'this is what I understand' and 'this is what you understand'?" she asks. "If this is not political, isn't that what you'd do?"
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