It took the prosecution almost four hours last Wednesday to present its case against former Lancaster County Commonwealths Attorney C. Jeffers Schmidt in his trial on a charge of fraudulently destroying public records, but the key testimony that lead to his acquittal took just moments.
Assistant Attorney General Mike Jagels called witnesses ranging from the county custodian to current Commonwealths Attorney Robert Cunningham to prove that after the 2011 election, in which Cunningham defeated Schmidt for the office, Schmidt had discarded numerous files from his office. Schmidt’s defense attorneys,Craig Cooley of Richmond and James Breeden of Irvington did not dispute that. They did, however dispute that by doing so Schmidt had broken the law.
The statute Schmidt was charged with violating reads:”If a …public officer fraudulently make a false entry, or erase, alter, secrete or destroy any record.. in his keeping and belonging to his office, he shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor and shall forfeit his office and be forever incapable of holding any office of honor, profit or trust under the Constitution of Virginia.”
The key testimony came on cross examination of Schmidt’s former assistant, Julian “Buck” Harmon and his former secretary Lynn Mobray.
When asked if Schmidt had ever said anything about undermining the incoming commonwealths attorney, Harmon snorted an indignant, “Absolutely not!”
Mobray, who testified that she had been concerned enough about the destruction of the files to alert the sheriff’s office, said that Schmidt was “upset” with the results of the election but, when asked on cross examination, she said that Schmidt had never asked her to destroy files and she never saw Schmidt do anything with current files.
Jagels attempted to show the fraudulent intent required by the statute by inferring bad motives to Schmidt’s request that his staff sign confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements regarding activities in the commonwealths attorneys office and his failure to file required paperwork with the Library of Virginia’s archivist regarding destruction of records.
John Metz of the Library of Virginia testified that the required documents were belatedly filed but said on cross examination that there are no regulations or other advisories as to what constitute “public records” in commonwealths attorneys’ offices.
Judge Robert Pustilnik disagreed with Jagels arguments concerning the non-disclosure agreements.
“You don’t want these lawyers leaving office and talking to the public,” he said.
As to discarding old files, the judge noted, “I don’t see how you could possibly make a criminal matter of that.” As to fraud on Schmidt’s part, Pustilinik said that while there may have been bad blood between Schmidt and Cunningham, “I can’t find any evidence in any way, shape or form of fraud.”
Without requiring the defense to put on any evidence or even to argue a motion to dismiss, Pustilnik entered a not guilty verdict.
Schmidt, clearly working to restrain his emotions, declined to be interviewed immediately after the verdict but did say he felt much better than he had.
Saturday, Cunningham said all 350 files were back in his office.
“We’ve got them. We don’t have to worry about them and we can move on,” he said.