Judge finds city school board chairwoman guilty

Published 8:17 am Saturday, September 22, 2018

by Stephen Cowles/Staff Writer

and Stephen Faleski/Staff Writer

Andrea Hall-Leonard, vice chairwoman of the Franklin City School Board, was found guilty of election officer neglect duty during her hearing in Southampton County Circuit Court on Thursday morning.

Hall-Leonard initially pleaded not guilty to presiding judge Robert H. Sandwich Jr., but her attorney, Richard Railey, evidently explained to her that was incorrect. She then stated no contest.

Accepting it, the judge then determined that she fully understood the amended charge, and that her plea meant she waived her right to a jury trial, nor could any cross-examination of witnesses be allowed.

Judge Sandwich declared her guilty and sentenced Hall-Leonard to 12 months in jail, with all 12 suspended. In addition to paying $1,752 in fines and costs, she must also perform 50 hours of community service.

The charge was originally election fraud, classified as a felony, but in the plea agreement it was reduced to a misdemeanor. Railey told the judge that Hall-Leonard had “no criminal intent.”

According to the Code of Virginia, election fraud is a class 5 felony, punishable by a term of imprisonment of not less than one year nor more than 10 years, or in the discretion of the jury or the court trying the case without a jury, confinement in jail for not more than 12 months and a fine of not more than $2,500, either or both.

The charge and subsequent misdemeanor conviction stems from her unsuccessful run against Greg McLemore for the Ward 3 seat on Franklin’s City Council earlier this year. In March, about two months before the election, McLemore alleged that Hall-Leonard had a friend collect the 50 signatures of registered Ward 3 voters she needed to qualify to get her name on the ballot, but signed the affidavit beneath her petition for office as though she had collected the signatures herself.

According to City Registrar Jennifer Maynard, having a friend or campaign worker to go door to door to obtain petition signatures on a candidate’s behalf is perfectly legal and common. However, there is an affidavit at the bottom of the petition document, which Maynard confirmed that the person who collected the signatures, not the candidate him or herself, must sign.

The affidavit reads, “I, ______, swear or affirm that (i) my full residential address is ______ in the state/commonwealth of ______; in the county/city/town of ______; (ii) I am a legal resident of the United States of America; (iii) I am not a minor; (iv) I am not a felon whose voting rights have not been restored; and (v) I witnessed the signature of each person who signed this page or its reverse side. I understand that falsely signing this affidavit is a felony punishable by a maximum fine of up to $2,500 and/or imprisonment up to 10 years.”

As evidence to support his claims of wrongdoing, McLemore produced a copy of Hall-Leonard’s signed petition for office, which she indeed signed as “A. Hall-Leonard,” as well as a letter from Ward 3 resident Julia Boyd dated March 9, 2018. The letter reads:

“I was approached by a short dark-skinned lady asking me to sign a petition on behalf of her friend running for city council to help with our electric bills. I signed the petition in the presence of that lady not the candidate A. Hall Leonard. The candidate A. Hall Leonard never came to my house to witness my signiture (sic.) This is the truth the whole truth, so help me God. No one has promised me anything to come forward and share this statement and the below witnesses were present for me and to sign this statement.”

The letter was signed by four people: Julia Boyd, Greg McLemore, Barbara Dixon, who identifies herself as Boyd’s sister, and Julia Dixon, who identifies herself as Boyd’s niece. The Franklin City Electoral Board referred the matter to the Southampton County Commonwealth Attorney’s office after learning of the allegations, citing State Code 24.2-1019, which states that “any complaint or allegation concerning unlawful conduct under this title shall be filed with the attorney for the Commonwealth of the county or city in which the alleged violation occurred. In the case of a complaint or allegation concerning the filing of a false statement in a voter registration application, the violation shall be deemed to have occurred in the county or city where the applicant sought to be registered.”

Speaking to The Tidewater News at the time the allegation was made, Boyd confirmed that a short woman with gray hair, dark skin and glasses had been the one who had approached her with Hall-Leonard’s petition and had witnessed her signature, but then claimed that it was McLemore who had alleged to her that Hall-Leonard had done something illegal. She claimed that McLemore had never mentioned the word “affidavit” when describing exactly what he had believed to be illegal, and added that McLemore was the one who actually wrote the letter she signed.

Maynard also confirmed that it was McLemore, not Boyd, who had delivered the letter to her.

Robert Holt, chairman of the city school board, said that Hall-Leonard would not be required to step down because the charge had been reduced to a misdemeanor. He said the board waited for the matter to “play out in court” and as for the verdict, “we’re fine with that.”

Holt said that Hall-Leonard is “a good board member. She does her homework and is diligent.”