Trial postponed for ex-School Board member’s lawsuit against prosecutor, sheriff’s deputy

Published 4:41 pm Wednesday, February 21, 2024

A federal judge has postponed the trial date for ex-Isle of Wight County School Board member Michael Vines’ lawsuit against a prosecutor and sheriff’s deputy.

Vines, who lost his seat on the board to challenger Jason Maresh in 2022’s elections, filed a complaint last year accusing Isle of Wight County sheriff’s deputy Kristopher Coughlin and Assistant Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Lily Wilder of “malicious abuse of process” for their roles in two unsuccessful attempts to recall him from office ahead of the election. U.S. District Judge Jamar Walker, in a Jan. 22 order, rescinded the Feb. 6 trial date he’d set last August, citing his having yet to rule on filings by Coughlin and Wilder asking him to dismiss the case. Walker, as of Feb. 20, had yet to pick a new trial date.

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

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In Virginia, recall petitions trigger a civil trial where a judge rules on the merits of their claims. When Isle of Wight Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips recused her office from arguing the case, Isle of Wight County’s Circuit Court appointed Phillips’ Suffolk counterpart, Narendra Pleas, as a special prosecutor, who then delegated the role to Wilder.

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.” Wilder, in her correspondence with Briggs, made reference to “running against the clock” and proposed issuing a search warrant to obtain an unredacted version of the document when Briggs told her state law explicitly requires school divisions redact a board member’s signature and home address when releasing copies.

The warrant wasn’t served until March 30 of that year, one day after Eason’s dismissal of the first petition and 16 days before Wilder was reappointed to prosecute the second. The warrant had accused Vines of “stating that he does not make over $5,000 at his place of employment” by leaving 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.

Vines’ lawsuit accuses Coughlin and Wilder of participating in a “conspiracy” under “color of law” by allegedly “utilizing the ruse” of a criminal investigation to “obtain an advantage in a civil proceeding.”

Coughlin’s filing last September to dismiss the lawsuit argues Vines “prevailed in the removal proceedings” and to date “has not been criminally charged.” Coughlin further alleges Vines to have earned roughly $17,000 in 2021, the year he was first appointed to the School Board to fill a former member’s vacant seat.

Vines’ lawyer, Steven Oser, in an October filing in opposition to dismissing the case, argues Coughlin is taking “a portion” of Vines’ amended complaint “completely out of context.”

“The implication of that claim is that since the Plaintiff earned nearly $17,000 during the first quarter of 2021, he lied on December 13, 2021, by responding in the negative to the question ‘Do you or a member of your immediate family receive salary or wages in excess of $5,000 annually from any employer?’ … The question is clearly in the present tense,” Oser writes.