Conflict of interest and trespass in Circuit Court

U.S. Postal Service clerk guilty of theft

Two legal cases being watched closely by the community began their journey through the judicial system in Rappahannock County Circuit Court.

In Woolman v Lesinski, Hampton district resident Tom Woolman charges Hampton supervisor John Lesinski with four counts of violating the state’s Conflict of Interests Act (COIA).

Woolman’s request for declaratory judgment contends that Lesinski, in his official capacities as Rappahannock County School Board chairman and supervisor, allegedly violated COIA by either not disqualifying himself from certain transactions or failing to disclose his economic interests in the transactions, as required by law.

And in Maxwell and Hochstetter v Piedmont Broadband, Wakefield residents Ron Maxwell and his wife Karen Hochstetter charge the internet service provider with trespassing, despite a lease signed by the two parties some years ago.

Piedmont Broadband provides Internet service using line-of-sight radio transmission. The company has installed equipment on Maxwell’s property on Fogg Mountain to service around 100 customers in surrounding areas. Maxwell contends that PBB has overstepped the terms of the lease by cutting down trees, installing more equipment than originally agreed to, and coming onto the property more often than expected.

The actions in both cases March 15 were preliminary hearings to set the rules before the merits of the circumstances are ever debated.

Lesinski’s and Woolman’s lawyers, Robert Mitchell and David Konick respectively, engaged in heated debate for over an hour on several issues, with Judge Jeffrey W. Parker interrupting to ask questions and test the attorneys’ arguments.

Konick and the judge, who have sparred many times before in court, seemed to enjoy challenging each other on points of law, even eliciting laughter from the spectators from time to time. At one point, Konick was speaking so fast that the court reporter asked him to slow down.

One issue involved standing, or the right to bring a suit. Standing is the doctrine that a prospective plaintiff — Woolman, in this case — can show that he has suffered some particular wrong by the actions of the defendant, meaning Lesinski.

Mitchell argued that the state code that reads in part “any person has the right to seek a declaratory judgment or other judicial relief as provided by law” was so vague as to include people from another country. He also contended that Woolman had not suffered any real damages or “peculiarized harm,” thus had no standing.

Calling Mitchell’s argument “somewhat curious,” Parker asked, “Isn’t a citizen impacted by [the actions of] his supervisor?”

Konick, in his turn, asked that if his client did not have standing — by virtue of being a resident, landowner, and registered voter in Lesinski’s district — who did? He disputed the need to suffer specific harm before claiming standing.

Other issues revolved around procedure in seeking declaratory judgement.

At the end of the arguments, instead of making a ruling, Parker surprised the litigants by asking for more time to consider what had been presented.

“I thought I’d be able to rule on this case when I sat down today,” Parker said, “but now I think I have to think about what’s been said.”

Parker has yet to issue his ruling on the preliminary hearing.

In the other case, arguments revolved around the concept of trespass. Maxwell’s attorney Ann Callaway argued that Piedmont had exceeded the provisions of the lease to such an extent that the company’s actions should be considered trespassing. She asked for a preliminary injunction against any further expansion of the company’s activities on Maxwell’s property.

However, Parker asked, “Isn’t this a lease case? Isn’t this a contract action? Why do you say this is a trespass case? Frankly, I’m puzzled by that.”

To which Callaway answered that the lease, signed in 2007, “is bare bones and vague about what the tenant is able to do…. [I]t’s difficult to tell the scope of the tenant’s rights.”

She argued that if coming on the property has increased and interferes with the owner’s use of the property, it constitutes trespass.

Mike Brown, attorney for Rich Shoemaker, the owner of Piedmont Broadband, reasoned that based on previous case law trespass was not a real complaint, and that Maxwell would have to claim a breach of contract.

Parker instructed Callaway to amend the complaint before asking for a preliminary injunction.

Finally in court news, Patricia J. Zelaya-Christman, until recently a U.S. Postal Service clerk in the town of Washington, was found guilty of petit larceny (thefts of under $200) in Rappahannock County District Court on March 13. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail, all suspended, and 12 months of unsupervised probation.

Zelaya-Christman, of Front Royal, was a familiar face behind the postal counter in what is zip code 22747. She was arrested by the United States Postal Inspection Service on charges of stealing money from the post office on Main Street.

At the time of her arraignment in January, according to one source, authorities were investigating whether Zelaya-Christman might have been involved in previous thefts from the town’s post office.

John McCaslin contributed to this story

About Patty Hardee 277 Articles
Writer, consultant, actor, director, recovering stand-up comic, Patty covers the county’s courts and other topics of interest for Rappahannock News. She lives with her grape-growing husband Bill Freitag in Flint Hill.