Goff fights off bid by Sen. Obenshain to prohibit dual roles as county and commonwealth’s attorney
Rappahannock County Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff wrote a three-page letter to Republican State Sen. Mark Obenshain last week warning him that a “little group of citizens in Rappahannock County” engaged in “dirty politics” was behind a provision in a bill introduced by the senator that sought to prevent commonwealth’s attorneys such as Goff from serving as county, city or town government attorneys.
As it was, when the bill — SB 1430 — was unanimously approved by the Senate earlier this week the state legislators had discarded the controversial clause pushed by Obenshain, who represents Rappahannock County.
The reason behind Obenshain’s opposition to state attorneys serving as local government attorneys isn’t known. He could not be reached Wednesday for comment. Approved portions of SB 1430 and SB 1431, the latter also introduced by the senator, would require conflict of interest (COIA) training and freedom of information training (FOIA) for local government officials every two years.
“I oppose the portion of the bill . . . that would prohibit the Commonwealth’s Attorney from simultaneously acting as County Attorney,” Goff wrote to Obenshain on Jan. 28, pointing out that he serves Rappahannock County in both capacities.
“As I understand it, the push for prohibiting dual jobs . . . comes from a little group of citizens in Rappahannock County who claim that [COIA] is not being enforced by me,” Goff stated. “The complaining group is composed of individual members who are engaged as plaintiffs in several lawsuits alleging violations of FOIA in the summer of 2016 (before I was County Attorney) and several more cases involving FOIA and COIA claims against the Board [of Supervisors], several members and against me.”
Goff observed further that this small Rappahannock gaggle alleges in promoting its FOIA charges that they constitute “Class 3 misdemeanors.”
“In twenty or more years of criminal law experience, the acts complained of are most definitely not criminal acts,” Goff told Obenshain, who as senator co-chairs the Committee for Courts of Justice. “The reason there will be no prosecution is not that I have a conflict of interest because I represent the Board and the individual members in the FOIA suit, it is because it is completely absurd and ridiculous to believe that a COIA crime has been committed on these facts.
“Removing me as County Attorney will not change the fact that as Commonwealth’s Attorney, I still cannot prosecute people for what I know to be their lawful acts,” Goff told the senator.
“In summary,” Goff continued, “you are being asked to support a provision in this bill that would overturn at least one hundred years of tradition in Rappahannock County, deprive the Board of its chosen counselor, impose significant additional costs upon taxpayers, reward dirty politics, and still get no prosecution of the so-called violations, all because the Rappahannock County [BOS] voted lawfully in open meeting after much debate to defend itself against a spurious lawsuit brought by this same little group.
“I should hope that you would agree . . . prevent[ing] the Commonwealth’s Attorney from simultaneously being the County Attorney is not an appropriate reaction to the situation in Rappahannock County.”
Goff stated his removal would impact Rappahannock County “in other negative ways,” not the least being it “would vastly increase the cost to the County for an attorney.”
He identified only one supposed member of the group of Rappahannock citizens as Page Glennie, a resident of Amissville. A regular attendee of county government meetings, Glennie has been outspoken in the past about how the government is run by the BOS, county officials and boards.
Reached Wednesday afternoon as this newspaper was going to press, Glennie responded: “I didn’t realize that I needed their permission to talk to my state senator . . . . Why is it dirty politics to talk to your senator about an issue that you believe is important? Why is that dirty politics?”
Obenshain, a conservative Republican, represents Virginia’s 26th Senate district, which besides Rappahannock includes the counties of Rockingham (part), Shenandoah, Page, Warren, and the City of Harrisonburg. He has practiced law in Harrisonburg and in Central Virginia for twenty-six years. He unsuccessfully ran in the 2013 election for Attorney General, conceding to his opponent Mark Herring.
Under his bill SB 1430, COIA training would be required for all government officials at least once every two years. SB 1431 would implement similar training regarding the FOIA.
As commonwealth’s attorney, Goff is elected to a four year term in office. He is charged with the prosecution of criminal matters and related civil matters on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the county of Rappahannock. He told this newspaper last month that he plans to run for reelection in November.
Saffeya Ahmed of the Capital News Service in Richmond and Rappahannock News reporter Patty Hardee contributed to this report.