Ousted School Board member sues prosecutor, sheriff’s deputy for ‘abuse of process’

Published 3:14 pm Friday, April 21, 2023

A former Isle of Wight County School Board member is suing a prosecutor and sheriff’s deputy for “malicious abuse of process” connected with two unsuccessful attempts last year to recall him from office.

More than 200 Windsor-area residents signed two separate recall petitions in 2022 – one in March and another in April – each accusing former board member Michael Vines of having made “wildly inappropriate” remarks at meetings and of “malfeasance” for allegedly failing to properly fill out the statement of economic interests board members must file.

Circuit Court Judge Carl Eason, while characterizing some of Vines’ remarks as having “bordered on rude,” dismissed the first petition on March 29 and the second on June 22. Despite having survived both recalls, Vines ultimately lost the Nov. 8 election to challenger Jason Maresh.

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Vines’ attorney, Steven Oser, contended in court filings last year that prosecutor Lily Wilder had turned the recall, which would ordinarily be handled as a civil court proceeding, into a “quasi-criminal” matter by using a search warrant to obtain Vines’ economic interests statement.

The court had named the Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office as a special prosecutor for the March petition after Isle of Wight Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips recused her office, citing an unspecified conflict of interest. The Suffolk office then tasked Wilder, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney, with arguing in favor of the recall.

A day before Eason’s March 29 ruling, Wilder had emailed Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs seeking Vines’ economic interests statement for what Wilder described as a “criminal investigation for felony forgery of a public record.” When Briggs replied that state law explicitly requires school divisions to redact a board member’s signature and home address when releasing copies of the document, Wilder wrote she was “running against the clock” and proposed issuing a search warrant to obtain the unreacted version.

That warrant wasn’t served until March 30 – one day after Eason’s dismissal, and at least 16 days before Wilder was reappointed to prosecute the April 15 petition. According to Vines’ lawsuit, two plainclothes deputies operating under the direction of Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Kristopher Coughlin entered Isle of Wight County Schools’ central office on March 30, approximately five minutes before its scheduled 4:30 p.m. closing, and instructed employees to remain in place while they searched for Vines’ economic interests form.

The warrant, which The Smithfield Times obtained from the county Circuit Court Clerk’s Office last year, accuses Vines of “stating that he does not make over $5,000 at his place of employment,” by virtue of having left the employment status and salary blank on his Dec. 13, 2021, economic interests form, but having stated at a Feb. 8, 2022, meeting he was “an IT manager” who makes “over $100,000 a year.” The two dismissed petitions had made the same accusation. An accompanying affidavit signed by Coughlin attests to the deputy having “personal knowledge of the facts set forth” and characterized Vines’ alleged omission as “forging public records,” a Class 4 felony under Virginia law.

Vines’ lawsuit, which was filed March 28 this year in federal court, accuses Wilder and Coughlin of a “conspiracy” under “color of law” to violate Vines’ constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure, and his right to due process, by “utilizing the ruse” of a criminal investigation to “obtain an advantage in a civil proceeding.”

Oser, speaking to the Times by phone, contends the Sheriff’s Office “never had any intent to do any investigation.” According to the lawsuit, after Coughlin seized Vines’ unredacted economic interests statement, he “never interviewed or sought any information” concerning Vines from any employee of Isle of Wight County Schools nor did he interview or seek any information from Vines himself.

“I’m sure they didn’t do any investigation; it’s been a year,” Oser said.

As a result of the two recall efforts and possibility of facing a criminal charge, Vines has suffered “past, present and future mental anguish, public ridicule and scorn” and “damage to his personal and professional reputation regarding his conduct in office,” the lawsuit contends.

Vines’ lawsuit makes eight total claims, five concerning Wilder’s and Coughlin’s alleged violations of Vines’ constitutional rights and three state law counts of “malicious abuse of process.” The suit seeks $1.1 million in damages from each defendant for each of the eight claims.

This is a developing story.