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Richmond Circuit Court appoints Augusta prosecutor to investigate mayor's handling of statue removal contract

Richmond Circuit Court appoints Augusta prosecutor to investigate mayor's handling of statue removal contract

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A Richmond Circuit Court judge has appointed Augusta County’s top prosecutor to determine whether Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney broke any laws when he arranged to remove the city’s Confederate monuments this summer.

Judge Joi Taylor on Friday appointed Augusta Commonwealth’s Attorney Timothy Martin to investigate the mayor’s handling of a $1.8 million no-bid contract with NAH LLC, a shell company linked to a Newport News-based contracting firm whose owner has donated $4,000 to Stoney’s campaign and political action committee since 2016.

Richmond Councilwoman Kim Gray, who is running for mayor against Stoney this fall, requested an investigation into the matter last month, saying that the cost of the contract and the project’s ties to the mayor’s donor raised “troubling questions.”

Stoney’s administration has denied wrongdoing, with officials saying City Hall expedited the process amid a state of emergency over the nightly social unrest that saw protesters topple several monuments.

“All I can tell you at this early stage is that we will investigate the matter in an unbiased way, and take whatever action is appropriate given what we find,” said Martin, a former Richmond prosecutor who moved to Augusta in 2014 and won election to the chief prosecutor role the next year.

Stoney called for the immediate removal of the statues in June, days before a new law permitting localities to take down Confederate monuments went into effect on July 1.

Protesters and activists across Virginia and the country, however, were already attempting to remove Confederate monuments and other symbols associated with racism and oppression after weeks of nationwide unrest that began in late May after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Protesters in Richmond succeeded in taking down statues of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue and the Richmond Howitzers Monument and a statue of Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham on Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus. Protesters also tore down the statue of Christopher Columbus in Byrd Park.

Richmond police later stopped protesters as they tried to take down the statue of J.E.B. Stuart on Monument Avenue — which the city later removed along with 13 other statues and monuments.

The statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, which is owned by the state, remains standing pending a legal challenge against the state’s plans for its removal. The city-owned statue of A.P. Hill in North Side also remains.

About the same time in June, a man suffered a severe head injury after he was struck by a statue that demonstrators in Portsmouth were pulling down. The incident has embroiled the city since then, resulting in felony charges against state Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and the resignation of the city manager.

The Stoney administration originally authorized its $1.8 million contract with NAH LLC for the removal of Richmond’s Confederate monuments in July without the City Council’s approval. The city attorney also advised against the immediate removal of the statues, but the administration contended it had the authority to take them down because they had become a threat to public safety.

The company the city hired for the removal work is linked to Team Henry Enterprises, a Newport News-based contracting firm owned by Richmond-area businessman Devon Henry. Administration officials said it chose the firm after several others locally and in the region declined to take the project.

Although the removal of Confederate monuments in Albemarle County and Baltimore cost each locality less than $100,000, Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan said other cities such as New Orleans and Dallas paid rates and costs similar to what NAH LLC charged the city.

Dallas paid $450,000 for the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, according to local media reports. New Orleans paid more than $2.1 million for the removal of four statues in 2017.

Stoney in 2017 estimated that it would cost the city upward of $5 million to remove the Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue. He has said he personally thought they should come down, but his administration did not pursue that course of action aggressively before the unrest.

“Remember, after an extensive search, in the end we received a proposal from only one firm that was willing to take on the job and the risk it was sure to entail,” Nolan said.

“Politicians who refused to act sooner could learn a thing or two from the courage shown by this Black-owned firm and the crew that did the work,” he said. “Considering that the city removed 14 monuments to the Lost Cause over several days — we firmly believe the city got a fair price for the services rendered.”

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin originally declined Gray’s request that she investigate the situation because Henry also had donated $250 in 2011 to a state Senate campaign for her husband, Rep. Donald McEachin. The city’s top prosecutor later asked the Circuit Court to consider appointing a special prosecutor to investigate after a follow-up request from Gray.

“Because of the conflict, my office has no judgment regarding the merits of Councilwoman Gray’s allegations,” Colette McEachin said in an email Monday. “It was appropriate for me to ask the Circuit Court to appoint a Special Prosecutor to determine whether and how to proceed concerning those allegations.”

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the court’s appointment indicates that it thinks there’s enough substance to the complaints to warrant a more thorough look.

“It strikes me as a good pick,” Tobias said of Martin’s appointment. “It’s hard to get that combination of someone who understands how Richmond government works in the city — yet are far enough away that they can exercise independent judgment.”

He said it will nonetheless be a tough situation for Martin, since he’s being asked to look into allegations of wrongdoing that were brought forward by the mayor’s rival just a few months before the election.

“It’s delicate,” Tobias said. “But I don’t see any way around it after it’s out in the public.”

It’s unknown whether the pending investigation will disrupt the city’s plans for the disposition of the Confederate monuments that have been taken down. Martin initially said he did not think so, but did not rule out the possibility.

Lawrence Anderson, the chief of staff for the City Council, said the city is reviewing about 25 offers for the statues. Last week, Anderson shared the names of the groups that made offers but declined to discuss the details.

The list includes The Valentine history center; the Virginia and Sumter County, S.C., divisions of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation; the Fontaine-Maury Society; three unnamed private individuals; and various foundations and monument preservation groups.

A response to a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request by the Richmond Times-Dispatch for copies of the written offers is pending.

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