During a Monday morning hearing at the county courthouse, Senior Status Judge Joseph C. Pomponio, Jr. denied a motion to dismiss misdemeanor charges against County Commission President Karen Lobban.
Lobban was indicted in June, along with former commission president Betty Crookshanks, of charges connected to the alleged misappropriation of $1.3 million in hotel-motel tax for a swimming pool project in Lewisburg on the campus of the New River Community and Technical College. Both entered not guilty pleas during their arraignments. The college has returned $300,000 of those funds to the county.
On Dec. 10, 2012, Lobban and Crookshanks voted to consign the hotel occupancy funds to the College’s Foundation to renovate an indoor pool at the school. A civil suit was subsequently filed accusing them of allocating the funds generated by the tax for an unauthorized purpose. In June 2013, a special circuit judge ruled that using hotel occupancy tax revenue for the project was illegal because the pool isn’t on property owned by either the county or a municipality.
At issue at the hearing were letters written to the state auditor’s office by Crookshanks seeking support for a legal basis to fund the project using the occupancy funds. The first letter received a negative response from auditor’s office. Crookshanks’ second letter got a positive reply but stipulated that the county must own the property.
“Duplicity is clear from the indictment statutes,” said James Cagle, attorney for Lobban. Citing violations of two separate statutes alleged in the indictment, he said, “They are disparate in nature… punishable by different penalties.”
“Criminal intent has to apply at the moment the intent was occurring,” Cagle, said. “That situation would not apply to Lobban since she got it second-hand from Crookshanks.” She was not the one who wrote the letters to the state auditor’s office. Lobban acted in “good faith,” without criminal intent.
“In all of the discovery we cannot find anything to level against her,” he said. “No evidence in the discovery disclosures show criminal intent.”
Cagle requested a transcript of the grand jury proceedings and witness instructions given by Chief Justice James J. Rowe, asking, “What did the grand jury think Lobban was charged with?”
Special Prosecutor Eugene Simmons argued there was criminal intent. Although she did not write the letters to the auditor’s office, she did have access to the responses from the auditor’s office. “So saying – [it was] wrong, but in spite of that she did it anyway. It was a violation of the law.”
“Why take it to the grand jury?” he asked. “Because she had access to the letters – that’s what makes it criminal.”
The state, Simmons said, is asking the lesser penalty for Lobban which carries a maximum fine of $100. He did not contest Cagle’s request for the transcripts.
Pomponio stated although he appreciated Cagle’s arguments, he agreed with the state and ruled in favor of the prosecution, denying Cagle’s motion for dismissal.
Pretrials for Lobban and Crookshanks are scheduled for Sept. 9. Crookshanks will stand trial on Oct. 2, followed by Lobban’s trial on Oct. 3.