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Broken Trust: Pittsylvania County Government Has Misled Public Over Concert Controversy – Mike Swanson

After reading last week’s bombshell story in the Chatham Star-Tribune, published with the title ‘We were threatened’: Festival organizer describes toxic relationship, in recent days, along with others, I went through all of the previous reports in various media outlets and the county’s own statements and press releases and have come to the conclusion that the Pittsylvania County government under administrator David Smitherman has misled the community over the controversy surrounding the cancellation of the Blue Ridge Country Festival and its dealings with its promotion company Purpose Driven Events (PDE) and its CEO Jonathan Slye.   I have been troubled ever since the county issued a press release on September 28 with this sentence in it: “The Chatham Star Tribune reported that, according to Pittsylvania County and the Health Department, the event organizers provided verifiably false reason as to why the event was cancelled. That is incorrect.” 

I did not believe that statement the county made in this press release was true when I read it and I still do not believe it.  On Friday, October 29, the Chairman of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, Robert “Bob” Warren, issued a statement in response to a citizen’s email about invoices to PDE.  County spokesman Caleb Ayers jumped into a Facebook group I was commenting in and made a reply to someone with a link to the release, so I took this opportunity to ask him what has been bothering me.

He did not reply. 

If this question cannot be answered it is very disturbing and warrants an investigation when considered in context with a timeline of events and statements made by various parties.  Comments on social media spread that the country concert could be canceled due to covid concerns during a time in which PDE was in dispute with Pittsylvania County administrator David Smitherman over how much money was owed by them.  In a letter to PDE on September 21, David Smitherman demanded that they meet seven conditions to receive a permit.  In an interview to WSLS Slye later said this letter “is not true.”  He claimed that he already met five of the seven conditions and two of them were new and not part of the permit process and music festival ordinance that already was approved in June.  More importantly, the letter also demanded that PDE pay for a meals tax for both the Worship on the Mountain and Rock Festival that was past due by “hand delivery or overnight delivery poste haste.”  The letter gave him a deadline of noon September 23 to meet its seven conditions and told him to meet with county officials on the afternoon of September 24.

Here is this letter.

Permits revoked for Blue Ri… by ElizabethRiebe-Thomas

The meals tax was for $153,209.17. 

A problem is that was originally not due until October 20 and later is said to have been already paid anyway.  In other words, Smitherman was demanding that PDE pay for a meals tax that they did not owe as a condition for the permit.  There is evidence that a dispute between PDE and Smitherman occurs over how much money is owed after their receipt of this letter on September 21, because it is, at least partly (we do not have the correspondence from PDE/Slye to the county as we only have the information that the county administrator has selectively released), resolved in a letter dated September 30 from Smitherman to Slye in which Smitherman acknowledges payment of the meals tax.  This letter states, “We received your email yesterday and have appropriately deducted the $153,209.17 Meals Tax payment from the $500,000 cash bond, which leaves a residual balance of $346,790.83.” 

 According to county spokesman Caleb Ayers, Slye decided to cancel the country concert on the evening of September 22.  Slye tells the Chatham Star-Tribune on September 28, “We could have absolutely moved forward with the festival.  All the finances have been paid on the meals taxes for both Worship at the Mountain and Blue Ridge Rock Fest.”  When asked about this later, according to WSLS reporting on October 12, “The county’s spokesperson tells 10 News this was, in fact, a miscommunication and that the meals tax from those festivals was paid.”  Slye’s statement in the newspaper was published two days before the letter from Smitherman to him acknowledged payment of the meals tax.  In other words, the timeline, as it stands now, indicates that Smitherman dropped his demand for payment of the “meals tax” only after Slye told the newspaper that he had already paid the real meals tax.  Statements by the county spokesman and Slye to the media also suggest that the meals tax was already paid before the letter of September 21, so why was it deducted from the bond on September 30 as shown in the letter below? Again, whatever is going on here, the timeline indicates that for a lengthy period of time Smitherman was trying to get PDE to pay a “meals tax” that it did not owe and only stopped this demand on September 30.

Before Smitherman acknowledged payment of the meals tax in this September 30 letter, PDE coordinated with Ayers about announcing the concert’s cancellation to the public.  On September 27th, PDE put out a statement on its website that read “At the request of local health officials, Blue Ridge Country Festival slated for October 1st-3rd 2021, will be postponed to May 13-15th, 2022, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”  The statement mentions nothing about the dispute over meals tax payment between the two parties, which the record, as it stands now, shows was not resolved at this time, nor does it mention any of the other demands of the September 21 letter.  This statement is false and the county administration encouraged him to make it, because WSLS reported on October 12, “Pittsylvania County spokesperson, Caleb Ayers, tells us Slye informed them of the postponement on Sept. 22, and they approved a statement from Purpose Driven Events stating that local health leaders urged the postponement.”

We know the statement is false, because within hours of the cancellation statement, WSET reports that it contacted the Virginia Department of Health who deny requesting the concert be canceled.  The Danville Register and Bee also reports, “Virginia Department of Health spokesperson Robert Parker told the Danville Register & Bee that the department did not cancel the country festival, or ask or advise the promoters to do so.”

The Chatham Star-Tribune contacts the VDH and finds the same thing.  They also get denials from the Danville-Pittsylvania Health District.  They ask Slye for clarification and he says he cannot name the officials. 

Neither he, nor anyone in the county government, has yet to do so.

This is a possible danger for the Smitherman administration, because it approved of Slye’s false statement.  If the statement falls apart people may begin to look for other reasons for the cancellation.  Whatever the case, they react by protecting the statement.  The county government issues a press release, saying that the concert promoter canceled due to covid concerns at the end of which it states, “The Chatham Star Tribune reported that, according to Pittsylvania County and the Health Department, the event organizers provided verifiably false reason as to why the event was cancelled. That is incorrect.”

This statement in the press release was false and misleading to the public. 

Why was this done? 

I believe that if the Smitherman administration released a false press release, then the public deserves an explanation as to why as it is a breach of trust.  Without clarification, it appears designed to distract people from looking further into the events leading up to the cancellation of the country concert and how the county administration dealt with PDE. It would take an investigation to determine whether all of this amounts to an attempt to hide corruption or simple incompetence that caused a deterioration in the relationship between PDE and the county administration ahead of the concert cancellation. What we know for sure, is that the county administration has created a black mark on the county that is going to make it very difficult to encourage other businesses to want to do business with this county administration after what has happened in this case. 

After the statement, Slye talks to reporters and multiple news outlets about his dealings with the county government.  After reporter Elias Weiss from the Chatham Star-Tribune asks David Smitherman about invoices, the county releases them to the public as part of a press release that says that PDE owes the county $337,592.29 in total.  The Star-Tribune reports that Slye “saw this as a calculated move to tarnish his reputation by controlling the flow of information.”

According to the paper, “In its Oct. 12 release, Pittsylvania County stated Purpose Driven Events was indebted to the county more than $300,000. However, in a Sept. 30 letter from the county to Slye, Smitherman wrote, ‘Pittsylvania County will remit the remaining balance of your bond when it receives payment for the above. If we do not receive the full payment of $336,295.50 by Oct. 28, 2021, we will deduct the full amount from the remaining bond on hand and then wire the remaining $10,495.33 to the appropriate account as outlined in our Sept. 29 email.’  In this letter, the county affirms that overall, it is indebted to Slye – contrary to what the Oct. 12 statement would suggest.”  This was certainly the impression that the press release created in the public, as WSLS reported on it with the following headline “Blue Ridge Rock Festival promoter owes more than $300,000 in unpaid bills to Pittsylvania County.”  That story led with this sentence, “Hundreds of thousands of dollars are owed to Pittsylvania County for its involvement in the Blue Ridge Rock Festival, according to county leaders.”

Slye told the Chatham Star-Tribune, “The entire meals tax situation was uncomfortable throughout.  We were asked for financial numbers that exceeded the purview of the county both during, and immediately following the festival. We were hounded, and what some would classify as threatened, about issuing the meals tax payment.” He also says, “Despite paying very early, due to the leaked letter that landed on every media outlet in the area, the general public was falsely made to believe that we had failed to comply with our responsibilities in this matter, subsequently compromising the financial integrity of the organization.” This statement by Slye is also evidence that he had paid the real meals tax before the September 21 letter from Smitherman demanding him to pay a meals tax.

Slye also disputes the cost of some of the charges on the invoices in the October 20 newspaper article.  “When the bills were first presented to me on the evening of Sept. 28, I was completely shocked.  Through 1,000 events across the state of Virginia, I had never received invoices anywhere close to this extensive previously.”  Focus is made on invoice #345, with a total amount of $177,472.26 on it.  “Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Warren said that, while the invoice may appear punitive, the county’s intention was only to protect its taxpaying residents,” reported the Star-Tribune on October 20

What is Warren referring to when he says it may appear to be punitive? 

On the invoice, Smitherman billed Slye $150 an hour for 58.5 hours for a total of $8,775.  Smitherman’s salary is $188,746.00 annually.  The rate of $150/hr, which Purpose Driven Events was billed, equates to $312,000/hr.  Tunstall District Supervisor Vic Ingram told the paper that in his opinion “it’s double dipping.  I don’t think he ought to milk this.  It is disgusting that he is trying to get $150 an hour out of this company.  It is just wrong to try to take advantage of them.”   

What can we take from all of this? 

I do not have enough information to make judgement on the billing on these invoices.  That requires a financial auditor.  Doubts over the handling of PDE by the county administration have grown since the October 20 article in the Chatham Star-Tribune. 

The county press release that first troubled me was made almost a month ago and the questions I have of it remain. 

The facts, and timeline, as it stands now, indicates that Pittylvania County Administrator David Smitherman attempted to get a private company to pay a tax that it did not owe.

It is also apparent that the current board of supervisors are not providing a proper supervision of the county administration for the taxpayers of Pittsylvania County and its citizens, because Chairman Bob Warren has made statements to the media only in praise of Smitherman and issued a statement on October 22 to defend his handling of PDE, even while this information has been available for anyone to look at.  Five of the seven supervisors have acted together consistently with Warren in support of Smitherman.  Ben Farmer is one of the other two who has not, once voting against a pay raise for Smitherman in 2018.  Farmer is retiring from the board, and the other one, who has been a vocal critic of Smitherman, William Ingram, was censored by the other five last week in a public spectacle. At that meeting Ben Farmer said that he saw his move as “bullying” and stated that “quite frankly, December 31st  can’t get here quick enough for me.”  No one can blame him for feeling that way, with five of his colleagues apparently blind, lethargic, or worse to what has been going on in recent weeks.  How does the community of taxpayers and voters of Pittsylvania County fix this situation to restore trust in its county government?

-Mike Swanson