Riddick resigns as ‘registered agent’ of Luter company

Published 5:36 pm Friday, June 9, 2023

Smithfield Town Attorney Bill Riddick has resigned as the registered agent for Grange at 10Main developer LSMP LLC.

“There seems to be a perception that I am somehow involved with the company. I am not,” Riddick said. “In order to remove this as an issue I decided to resign and have asked Mr. Crook to take my place.”

According to State Corporation Commission records, H. Woodrow Crook, another Smithfield lawyer who decades ago served as the attorney for Isle of Wight County and its school system, took over as LSMP’s registered agent effective June 1.

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According to the SCC’s website, every authorized Virginia business must maintain a registered agent. This person is tasked with accepting the company’s annual registration fee notice and any lawsuits filed against the business. A registered agent can be a member of the business entity’s management or, in the case of LSMP, a member of the Virginia State Bar.

Riddick had created the company in 2020 when he represented Grange developer Joseph Luter IV’s father, former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph Luter III, in his efforts to purchase and raze the former Little’s Supermarket and 1730s-era Pierceville farmhouse at Route 10 and Main Street. LSMP is an acronym for “Little’s Super Market Property.”

Roughly three months prior to representing Luter III, Riddick had defended the town in a lawsuit brought by former Pierceville owner Mary Delk Crocker, who had sought to overturn the Town Council’s 2019 decision to deny her permission to raze the dilapidated house.

Though the Town Council at the time had argued Pierceville was a “landmark” in Smithfield’s historic district that should be protected from demolition, Crocker won her legal battle.

During the council’s court-ordered December 2020 reconsideration of the matter, Riddick contended Crocker’s request to raze Pierceville was still valid despite her having sold the property to LSMP a month earlier, and the council voted 6-1 to approve the demolition.

“I do not actively represent LSMP, LLC and have not since it purchased the real estate back in 2020,” Riddick said. “All of that was disclosed to Town Council when I handled those transactions then.”

Riddick, who in addition to his duties as town attorney has his own law firm, said he has served as the registered agent for “hundreds of entities” over his decades practicing law. Among them was Times Publishing, the company operated by Smithfield Times Publisher Emeritus John Edwards and his wife, Anne, prior to their 2019 sale of the business to current Publisher Steve Stewart and Smithfield Newsmedia LLC.

“I don’t recall actively representing the paper in any matters,” Riddick said.

Smithfield resident Mark Gay, who’s repeatedly spoken against the 304-home Grange development and had led opposition to a previous developer’s plans for the Pierceville property in 2015, had written to Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares in 2022 asking for a state investigation into “conflicted members of Smithfield Town Council and the Town Attorney.” Miyares’ office did not investigate, contending the attorney general had no authority to probe the alleged conflicts of interest.

According to Randolph-Macon College Professor Richard Meagher, whom the Times consulted as an expert in local government ethics, elected or appointed officials would need to earn $5,000 or more from a deal to meet the “personal interest” standard that would trigger Virginia’s conflict-of-interest laws.

“Riddick has no decision-making power here,” Meagher said of the town’s current consideration of a rezoning request for the Grange. “Riddick can’t make the Planning Commission say ‘yes’ or the Town Council approve the deal (or approve reimbursements to the developer), and he certainly can’t tell the county what to do.”

At a May 24 work session of the town’s Planning Commission, which has until July 20 to make a recommendation to the Town Council on the Grange’s rezoning application, Riddick said he’s getting “tired of the implication that somehow there’s some sort of criminal conspiracy going on, because there’s not.”

Riddick made the remark after Commissioner Thomas Pope described an unspecified amount of “reimbursements” Luter IV said he plans to seek from the town for components of the development as a “hidden cost.” Luter IV, at the same meeting, said he’d been “instructed” by town officials that “this is for discussion post-zoning.”

Meagher said he sees the issue of what if any “instruction” Luter IV may have received from the town as “less about conflict of interest and more about the typical dirty details of development deals.”

Riddick had also been tasked as town attorney with reviewing a May 11 Freedom of Information Act request by the Times that resulted in the town withholding as “proprietary” a Jan. 9 estimate of what the town and county would be asked to reimburse Luter for Grange infrastructure. The Times obtained from an identical FOIA request to the county. Luter IV contends the actual reimbursement costs won’t be anywhere near as high as the $7 million-plus estimated in January, but said he “won’t be in a position to provide numbers” until after the Planning Commission votes on the project.

The bigger problem is that even well-meaning government officials prefer to be left alone to do their work, and do not value transparency beyond lip service,” Meagher said. “It sounds like there will be an effort in the future to get more taxpayer funds for this deal than folks may be aware, so it’s not exactly good that anyone is trying to keep speculation about that under wraps. But that is standard procedure for a development deal with public funding – the rules for officials are to minimize any possible costs, overestimate the benefits, and just get the deal done and worry about the details later. Too many rewards for building things, however expensive, and not enough for stopping them, especially when the actual accounting doesn’t shake out for years, if not decades.”