Lenherr found not guilty in misuse of office

It took a Fluvanna County jury around an hour to find County Treasurer Linda H. Lenherr not guilty on charges of using confidential information for economic benefit.

“This is about keeping an oath,” Special Prosecutor Ray Fitzgerald said in his opening statement before the seven-person jury Thursday (Aug. 10) in Fluvanna County Circuit Court.

Lenherr’s attorney, Charles Bowman, argued that “the Commonwealth saw something it didn’t like, so it’s trying to back it into a crime.”

Lenherr was accused of using her position to tilt the scales in favor of her son, Michael Lenherr of MCL Construction, in an April 2015 property auction.

At that auction, Michael Lenherr bought a parcel on Mountain Hill Road for $8,000 and another on West River Road for $5,000. This was well below what the county needed to cover the $33,000 in delinquent taxes owed on the two properties.

A 2016 investigation by Virginia State Police found email chains between Lenherr and Anthony Paone II, the special commissioner contracted by the county to collect delinquent real estate taxes.

The night before the auction, Lenherr contacted Paone to say she had an interested buyer for one of the properties and asked, “What is the least this would go for and judge would approve the sale?” Paone said he thought it would be about $22,000.

Lenherr then told Paone her son was the interested buyer. He replied that the judge might approve $18,000, although this might require additional taxes and fees.

On the witness stand, Paone said, “People call me all the time and want something for nothing.” While he couldn’t recall Lenherr reaching out to him on other properties over the years, he maintained that he would have told Michael Lenherr the same things if he had been the one to call or email.

Under questioning from Fitzgerald, Paone said he and Lenherr had briefly discussed the appearance of impropriety in Michael Lenherr participating in the auction just before the sale began. His “analysis” was that Michael Lenherr was over 50 and not financially dependent on his mother and, in any case, Paone said, “I couldn’t stop him from coming.”

Paone couldn’t fully explain why he had told the court that “[i]t is the desire of the Fluvanna County treasurer for the court to approve” the sale of the West River Road property, nor why he hadn’t mentioned the relationship between Lenherr and MCL Construction to the judge who signs off on the sales.     

Michael Lenherr testified that he decided to bid on the Mountain Hill Road property the night before the auction as a potential building site for a daughter who had recently married. He said he had gone to the auction with a budget of $13,000 and his initial bid of $8,000 on the property went unchallenged. 

When there were no bids on the West River Road property, Michael Lenherr said Paone, whom he had met for the first time that morning, had looked at him and said “Michael, I need a bid.” Michael Lenherr then put up his remaining $5,000. He insisted he had not considered buying the property before that time and had not discussed it with his mother the day before.  

When she took the stand in her own defense, Linda Lenherr said she had given her son “absolutely the same service I would give to any taxpayer of Fluvanna County.”

She was adamant that her only role had been to ask Paone about the minimum bid at her son’s request and that she “did not advocate for him to push the bid through.” 

But under sharp cross-examination from Fitzgerald, she couldn’t square her interest in learning the lowest possible bid for her son with her responsibility to get the highest possible price for taxpayers.

Linda Lenherr also had to admit that only one other property had failed to bring in at least enough to cover delinquent taxes at auction prior to April 2015. The third sale that day, the one Michael Lenherr did not bid on, went for $45,000, above the threshold needed to pay back taxes.  

In the end, the case came down to what constituted “confidential information” under the law. 

Bowman argued that nothing Linda Lenherr had communicated to her son was confidential and that any resident of Fluvanna County could have found the same information and had the same chance of success at auction as Michael Lenherr. 

Fitzgerald countered that Michael Lenherr had the critical piece of confidential knowledge: that no matter how low his bid, his mother would make sure that “this sale is going through.”

Linda Lenherr has worked for the county since 1971 and was elected treasurer in 1984. Given her long tenure with the county, local judges and prosecutors recused themselves from the case. Fitzgerald works with the Orange County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office and Judge Margaret Spencer was brought in from Henrico County.