The Virginia Pilot published a story this afternoon revealing that the Republican Party of Virginia’s Executive Director, Shaun Kenney, is under investigation by the Virginia State Police. Bizarrely, the story, by Julian Walker, never actually says what alleged misconduct is being investigated.
Julian Walker’s 1200 word discourse on “scandal” is long on color, short on actual journalism, and peppered with baseless insinuation. We read the story so you don’t have to, but feel free to see for yourself. In a nutshell,Walker reports that some people complained to authorities that Shaun Kenney’s purchase of 6 tracts of dilapidated real estate in the depressed Fluvanna town of Columbia–made while he was serving on the Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors–involved some sort of impropriety relating to potential revitalization grants for the area, and a nearby water pipeline project Kenney had voted for.
Unfortunately, Walker’s article never gets around to identifying what exactly that impropriety might be, but instead literally leaves it to the reader’s imagination. Walker writes,
The land is ripe for possible improvement with government grant funds that Kenney, as an elected official, knew had been applied for. . . .[The tracts are] in the path of potential grant funding. Public dollars sought through federal and state sources could yield more than $1 million for the area.”
So Kenney could make a million bucks off of his official acts?!? No, not quite. Walker’s own piece later reveals the above paragraph to be a classic example of journalistic malpractice:
Former Fluvanna grant administrator Pat Groot said the town has been deemed eligible for about $200,000 in federal funds. An application for about $944,000 in grants though the state was initially denied last summer. The county might resubmit an application.”
(Emphasis added). That’s right…Walker reported that there is no grant funding actually authorized or being spent, and that Kenney bought the property after the large grant application was denied. In fact, we spoke with Kenney himself (imagine that!) and discovered that the only reason he was able to get the properties at all was because the grants had been denied, which had prompted the major property owner in the area to begin to sell all of his properties.
But wait…there’s more:
While the grants are up in the air, moving forward is a $4 million-to-$6 million water pipeline project Kenney voted for last year. One allegation against Kenney is that the grants or water project could enhance his property value.“
(Emphasis added). Ahh…an “allegation” finally. Except saying that his property value might be enhanced isn’t really an allegation; it’s more of a supposition, and still doesn’t say what wrongful conduct might be involved, like, for instance, whether the vote on the pipeline was after he bought the property (it wasn’t). We actually spoke with Kenney, and discovered that this potential pipeline route is a mile away from Columbia; that none of his lots are adjacent to a water source; and the town where the properties are located already has its own water treatment facility.
In other words, the properties have nothing to do with the pipeline, and only some vague chance of having the whole town maybe benefiting from a whopping total of $1.2 million in grant funding that may or may not come at some undefined point in the future, well past the time when Kenney left the Board of Supervisors last December. That’s the crux of Walker’s “scandal” and “controversy,” despite his insinuations that there were some sort of official acts taken, or non-public knowledge exploited, by Shaun Kenney to enrich himself.
Of course there is more to the story that Walker didn’t examine. (For a bit of that, check out the WaPo‘s Jenna Portnoy). Kenney maintains that the complaint against him was politically motivated. We suspect that’s true. Kenney will be the first to admit he’s made a lot of enemies in his long career in Virginia politics. Walker does a disservice to his readers by not exploring who is behind the complaint that spawned the investigation. We are, after all, talking about a political professional, but Walker’s piece never touches on the political angle and whose interest is served by flogging such apparently weak charges. I suspect perhaps there is more to come on these questions.
A reality of local politics is that such a seemingly counterintuitive investment in slum real estate, regardless of how “pure” or “altruistic” the intentions behind it, is bound to trip the alarm bells when it’s done by the most senior sitting member of local government. It generally just doesn’t smell good, and appears to casual observers to perhaps be a case of having an unfair (even if not unlawful) advantage over the average citizen by virtue of one’s public position, which is why most public officials would avoid this kind of business–especially when any private citizen can lodge a complaint with the relevant authorities. It’s an unfortunate reality that this kind of scrutiny comes with the territory, even when that scrutiny reveals no actual wrongdoing.
I don’t claim to have the full story, and perhaps more facts will emerge that actually merit the “controversy” and “scandal” designation Walker has assigned here. But the facts for now suggest there’s nothing to this. I suspect that’s the reason Walker never actually suggests Kenney committed any improper official acts, and instead just implies it vaguely. I suspect it’s the same reason his editors decided to bury his florid, feature-style prose on a Friday afternoon, in the online edition of their newspaper.