Kay Hayes still remembers signing the letter.
“I said, ‘We’re going to get sued,’ and then I signed it anyway. I had to,” she recalls. “We had to.”
The next day, the Fauquier Citizen published her letter, kicking off a battle that would last two years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
At the heart of Hayes’ letter was an allegation that the county had fraudulently and secretly entered into a sweetheart deal with a local developer, Stefano Parlagreco (SPR), one that would cost taxpayers millions of dollars. The building in question was a four-story property on Hospital Hill slated to become the county’s new social services department.
A month after County Administrator Steve Crosby had negotiated the deal with SPR, he joined its ranks, raising red flags that a conflict of interest was afoot. That Crosby executed the deal — the largest financial commitment in the county’s history — without consulting Fauquier County’s Director of Finance, gaining official approval from the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors (BOS), or soliciting a single competing bid, caused further consternation.
When they were presented with this information, CFFC wrote their letter to the paper exposing all the sordid details, and President Kay Hayes signed it, knowing full well the organization would likely face a legal backlash.
After the letter was published, the CFFC Board of Directors and a few dogged journalists pursued the claims. What followed was a vicious back-and-forth between the developer, the ex-county administrator, the county, and even the Warrenton Rescue Squad, which owned the land on Hospital Hill.
Soon citizens knew what CFFC had suspected: the county was on the hook for 25 million dollars to pay for a property assessed at less than 3 million. When the county appeared to be backing away from the deal, SPR sued it, the BOS, and CFFC, alleging defamation and conspiracy. Hayes had been right.
“Luckily, we had the lawyers and we had people who supported us,” Hayes recounts.
It wasn’t long before the frivolous suit was dismissed, but not before garnering attention from legal scholars and attorneys across the country. SPR’s suit had clearly been intended as a SLAPP suit, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation. These suits had become popular in the 1980’s as a way to silence opposition voices in land disputes. In a SLAPP suit, the plaintiff never expects to win, at least not in a traditional sense. The goal is to intimidate the defendant with legal threats and fees until they give up or run out of money.
CFFC would not be intimidated.
Instead, the organization countersued, hoping to send a powerful message to SPR and any other developers who thought to use a SLAPP suit to bully their way into business: not in Fauquier County.
Two years later, SPR filed for bankruptcy.
Hope Porter cites the SPR countersuit as one of her proudest moments with CFFC. “It had a tremendous effect on the national dialogue about SLAPP suits. To my mind they no longer pose a threat,” she says.
Hayes is also proud of defending first amendment rights and recalls the ordeal as harrowing but necessary.
At stake in the SPR case was government transparency and residents’ right to have a say in the future of Fauquier County.
It’s what CFFC fought for then and what it’s still fighting for today.