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  • Writer's pictureSam Orlando

Augusta County v. Free Press: FBI and DOJ Connections Surface in Augusta County Court FOIA Battle

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Written by: Sam Orlando

Augusta County, VA - A courtroom in Augusta County became the stage for a drama with more twists than a country road on Tuesday. The Augusta County government is doing its utmost to keep the recording of a controversial closed-session meeting from reaching the public eye, and their efforts just got a whole lot more interesting.

The Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, brought by Chris Graham of the Augusta Free Press, revolves around recordings of closed-session meetings made by Dr. Scott Seaton, the Wayne District representative on the Board of Supervisors. One such recording is the focus of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Graham, seeking to scrutinize a meeting discussing the resignation of former board member Steven Morelli.

Now, there's another layer to the tale: FBI and DOJ involvement.

During the hearing, outside counsel Rosalie Pemberton Fessier, hired by the county, grilled Seaton, seeking to know who else had access to his recordings. Seaton divulged that aside from the county, he'd also shared these recordings with an FBI agent and the United States Department of Justice Public Integrity Unit.

Yes, you read that right. The FBI and DOJ.

The inquiry took an unexpected turn when Fessier pressed Seaton to reveal the name of the FBI agent he had shared the recordings with. Seaton hesitated, citing concerns that the FBI may be conducting an investigation into Augusta County leaders. At this point, Judge Rupen R. Shah intervened, asking Seaton to write down the agent’s name on a piece of paper and then promptly sealing it as a court exhibit. Astonishingly, the judge cited concerns for the federal agent’s safety as the reason for the sealing.

This raises some obvious questions: what is going on in Augusta County? What could be on these recordings that merits involvement from federal agencies and why would Judge Rupen Shah cite concerns for a federal agent's safety?

This intense scrutiny over the recordings suggests there is more at stake than just local politics or potential embarrassment for the county government. Graham’s original argument claims the Board of Supervisors may have incorrectly cited personnel exemptions under FOIA as a cover for discussing matters they would rather keep out of the public spotlight.

County leaders are putting up a vigorous fight, complete with outside legal counsel, making us wonder what is so incriminating or volatile in these recordings that it warrants this level of legal artillery. To put this in perspective, the county isn’t just bringing a gun to a knife fight; it's bringing a bazooka to a game of horseshoes.

Meanwhile, Seaton stands by his right to make the recordings, stating that Virginia is a one-party consent state, and he was that one party. He revealed that he has recorded multiple closed sessions as a way to keep notes.

The judge is expected to rule on the case on September 28 at 9am. Until then, the questions keep piling up, leaving the Augusta County community keenly awaiting what secrets might be revealed. With high-caliber lawyers, a contentious closed-door meeting, and now the FBI and DOJ making cameo appearances, this is one county saga that we are all going to have to watch.

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