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Crime and punishment

SoVaNow.com / April 23, 2009
Much to get to this week: Let’s start with Jeff Oakes.

With the former sheriff stuck with a $37.50 fine for low crimes and misdemeanors (his jury bill, on the other hand, will run $1,620) people will debate ad nauseam whether the investigation into the wiped computer at the Sheriff’s Office was worth the time, money and effort, coming as it did at taxpayer expense.

Might I suggest a different way of looking at the matter? Robert Bushnell, the special prosecutor from Henry County, did a masterful job of putting this case into its proper context. Oakes’ actions upon leaving office, Bushnell told the jury, were mean-spirited, cheap and petty, but the penalty aside from the embarrassment of a conviction should be basically nil, he argued. And I think that’s exactly right. Maybe the point is so obvious no one could possibly miss it, but I have seen prosecutors go off the deep end before and Bushnell rightly avoided the temptation to advocate a punishment for Oakes bigger than the crime. In any case, it was evident that Bushnell had the jury eating out of his hand as the trial wore on, so it’s no surprise the jurors would follow his guidance on sentencing.

The principle at stake in the Oakes case is simple: Should public officials be required to follow the same rules as everyone else, no matter how spicayune? Everyone decries the lack of accountability evidenced so often in public life — in private, too — yet a lot of folks have cast this controversy as merely an extension of the bitter Oakes-Stanley Noblin sheriff’s race: politics by other means. I don’t think this is merited. It may be this entire episode could have been avoided had Noblin and Oakes sat down after the election and worked together on the transition, but officials-elect and officials-unelect-and-still-nursing-their-wounds are not obligated to do anything of the sort. They are obligated to leave their departments in working order on the way out the door, which was the fundamental issue in last week’s trial. When Noblin turned on his office computer and saw nothing there, he was pretty much obligated to bring in an outside party to investigate. And once that snowball starts rolling it tends to pick up a lot of debris.

What a shame about Jeff Oakes. Our former sheriff obviously is an smart and capable guy (given his profession, he’s also a surprisingly good writer), and maybe he was indeed the ace lawman that his supporters always claimed. But I’ve seen more maturity in 10-year-olds. Reading Oakes’ statement to the State Police investigator in the case, one is struck by the level of delusional arrogance: Oakes had to wipe his computer clean, you see, because Noblin would use the risqué e-mails stored on the hard drive against him in the election re-match four years from now. Wow. You’d never know that Oakes had just lost the sheriff’s race by 20 percentage points. Even during the run-up to his trial, Oakes was posting on Halifaxtalk.com about his desire to run for School Board.

The irony is, Oakes might even make a good trustee but for the fact that every positive attribute our former sheriff brings to the table is undermined by a penchant for high-handedness that is impossible to ignore. What is it about smart people in this county? Do they think there are so few of them around that their actions and statements should go unchallenged? No one likes to be humbled in public, and Lord knows I can only suppose that my day is coming, but if ever there were grounds for a good takedown of the high and mighty this was it. Seen in that light, last week’s trial was a fitting end to a controversy that never should have happened in the first place.

***

Members of the Virginia Tobacco Commission embarked on quite a spending spree last week, recommending 17 grant awards totaling $10.8 million for economic development projects in Southside Virginia. Among the proposed awards was $250,000 to expand Meadowview Terrace Nursing Home in Clarksville. To my knowledge this would mark the first time the Tobacco Commission has ever made a cash grant to a nursing home, which even the Tobacco Commission staff calls a “low priority” and a deviation from the group’s strategic plan (such as it is).

On the one hand, unlike a lot of projects the Tobacco Commission underwrites, the Meadowview expansion will create actual jobs (a projected 25 permanent positions at an average pay of $13 an hour). On the other hand, it’s hard to understand the rationale for the Commission simply handing out money to every business that wants to expand. Why doesn’t the Commission forgo grants for for-profit businesses and set up a revolving loan fund and leave it at that? One wonders how long it will take for other nursing home providers in the region to approach the Commission with hats in hand. The Tobacco Commission may be sitting on a billion dollars, but as a wise man once said, a few million here and a few million there and all of a sudden you’re talking about real money.

The Tobacco Commission has been in operation for 10 years now and the strain of identifying projects that have a lasting impact on the region is starting to show. The single largest appropriation that the Commission is proposing to make this time around is $3,523,334 for the Kinderton Technology Campus, a data center complex that Mecklenburg officials have on the drawing board for Clarksville. Clarksville is a logical candidate for the investment inasmuch as Electronic Data Systems (EDS) already operates a large data center next door. The thinking is that Clarksville has the opportunity to build up critical mass in this sector of the economy, which I think is exactly right. The Kinderton Technology Park has great promise as Tobacco Commission initiatives go. Yet down the road from EDS, a private, out-of-town developer already is marketing a piece of land for potential data center clients. Why are the Tobacco Commission and the local IDA stepping in to do what the private sector probably can do better?

People often overlook the fact that EDS did not establish its data center inside a commerce park or technology building conceived and owned by an arm of local government — instead, the company took over a hollowed-out candy factory (Russell Stover) that a private owner was able to sell over such potential rivals as the Riverstone Technology Park. Where outfits like the Tobacco Commission are useful is in financing the infrastructure improvements that are needed to support economic development — in EDS’s case, the regional fiber-optic broadband initiative that was so essential to making the Clarksville data center a reality. This is why I don’t get upset when the federal government spends stimulus money on useful infrastructure, because while the payoff may not be immediate the benefits are widespread or long-lasting or both. A lot of the stuff that the Tobacco Commission indulges in, by contrast, is little more than dressed-up corporate welfare. (Somewhat off-topic, while the federal stimulus package at least addresses the need to get money circulating through the economy, the bank bailouts, Bush and Obama, are simply awful — the Mother of All Corporate Welfare, with more than one of the recipients deserving of a jail cell instead of federal largesse.)

Of course, there’s another category of Tobacco Commission waste: the kind that arises from blatant political horsetrading. By far the worst of the proposed grants this time around is $1 million for a wastewater improvement project in the Town of Brookneal. Now, don’t get me wrong: it may be that Brookneal really needs this project. And with the town economy knocked flat by recent plant closings, it’s a good bet Brookneal can’t swing this deal on its own. But I’ve been hearing for years now that the Tobacco Commission doesn’t pay for water and sewer improvements unless projects are specifically geared towards promoting commercial and/or industrial growth. The staff recommendation for the Brookneal project notes that “[e]conomic development outcomes are not described (no prospective private sector jobs or capital investments identified to result from the completion of this project at this time)”, and in addition to that the town is putting basically zero of its own money into the game. So what does the Southside Economic Development Committee do? They overrule the staff recommendation of no award and give Brookneal the full $1 million that the town sought.

If the Commission wants to do this sort of thing, fine — have at it. A water system upgrade for Brookneal is more socially beneficial than an industrial park sitting empty in Keysville. But when folks propose using Tobacco Commission money to build schools or establish low-cost health clinics, the politicians who sit on the Tobacco Commission ought not to dismiss those ideas as inconsistent with the group’s strategic plan if they have no intention of paying zero attention to that plan themselves. And spare me the descriptions of Tobacco Commission members as “fiscally conservative.” The next time you hear one of our local politicians running off at the mouth about the horrors of stimulus spending, ask what he has in mind to stimulate in Brookneal.

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