Mayor denies impropriety in facilitating $6 million Luter donation

Published 5:36 pm Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Smithfield Mayor Steve Bowman pushed back against accusations of impropriety at the Town Council’s June 4 meeting after town residents took issue with his having facilitated the first installment payment of a proposed $6 million donation from former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph Luter III, intended for the beautification of Main Street’s intersection with Route 10 where Luter’s son is developing the 267-home Grange at 10Main mixed-use development.

The elder Luter’s donation is conditioned on the town’s farmers market being relocated to the Grange and the town matching the gift dollar for dollar.

“Up to this day $4 million has been transferred into the account of Smithfield. … It’s been handled by the treasurer, it’s been handled by the town manager; the only thing I did was give the information necessary in order to assure that those funds were safely and securely transferred,” Bowman said at the June 4 meeting.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

In an email obtained by The Smithfield Times, Bowman informed his fellow Town Council members last week that he’d flown at his own expense to Palm Beach, Florida, for a May 22-24 stay at Luter III’s residence, during which Luter III, a friend of Bowman’s since 1988, offered the donation.

Bowman, at the June 4 meeting, said he “went down to see a man who wanted to donate money to the town that he loved,” but previously said in his email to the council that Luter III’s offer had been “spontaneous and a surprise to me.”

Bowman, in a June 5 statement to the Times, said again that Luter had given him no indication he planned to offer the donation when he invited Bowman.

“In fact, I did not and had not spoken to Mr. Luter for a couple of years prior to my arrival,” Bowman said.

Bowman’s May 29 letter to Luter III states should the council vote to accept and match less than $6 million, the remainder “will be subtracted from your donation and that amount will be funded to your wife, Mrs. Karin Luter.”

Bowman contends the up to $12 million in donated and taxpayer money would fund a brick wall and welcome sign in the town right-of-way fronting the 57-acre Grange site, similar to the one that surrounds The Smithfield Center on North Church Street where the council meets, as well as the extension of brick sidewalks to the development.

The sidewalk project “has been in progress since long before this discussion,” Bowman said. The council previously signed a 2021 contract with Luter’s son, Joseph Luter IV, to sell town-owned land at Washington and James streets to him for a smaller, eight-home development for $225,000, conditioned on the town using the money to extend brick sidewalks to the Grange. Plans to move the farmers market to the Grange and facilitate parking at the Grange for Main Street Baptist Church – two other conditions of Luter III’s offer – have also been in the works since before the Grange received council approval in December for mixed-use zoning.

Any leftover funds could be used as the town sees fit, though Bowman’s letter of receipt to Luter III states it’s Luter’s preference that the town “give significant consideration to completing the master plan at Luter Sports Park” where plans for a nearly 4,000-square-foot maintenance building that would serve all three town-owned parks are on hold for lack of funds.

Theresa Mulherin of Washington Street, one of more than a dozen to speak in opposition to the proposed taxpayer match during the June 4 meeting’s public comment period, alleged a “conflict of interest in the mayor’s office” and urged Vice Mayor Valerie Butler to “begin an investigation immediately related to the receipt of the money.”

“When did it come? Who received it? Who deposited it? What date? What time?” Mulherin asked.

“We don’t know how much those priorities would cost or whether there is even going to be any money left over once those expenses are achieved; when an individual puts conditions on a gift that enhance their personal current or future investment, this is not truly a gift; it is achieving their agenda, not ours,” said Grace Street resident Mary Harris.

Darren Cutler, a Commerce Street resident and candidate running for one of four council seats on the ballot in November, urged Bowman to recuse himself from voting on whether to accept the money, noting Town Councilman Randy Pack had recused himself from the Grange’s December rezoning vote on count of his negotiations with Luter IV to open a restaurant within the development.

Bowman, the town’s former police chief, stood firm in denying any ethics violation.

“I can assure you if you know me and have known me for 40 some years as a town police officer that walked your streets and kept your streets safe, and known what I do when I go to court, and how I conducted myself, anyone who’s throwing ethical bombs at me is misplaced and misdirected,” Bowman said.


‘It really burns a trust’

Butler and other council members largely sided with the mayor, taking more issue with his email having been provided to the Times ahead of the meeting than any allegations of impropriety by Bowman.

“I think whoever gave that to the press is sitting at this table,” said Councilman Jim Collins. “I’m new at this and I am sorry that person did that, cause it’s a misunderstanding. … I don’t appreciate the person that gave it. It really burns a trust in this body that we are supposed to serve you.”

Councilman Raynard Gibbs said he too was “disappointed that someone would leak information,” though emails between council members are public records under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act unless they fall under a specific exemption to FOIA.

“This is the first time I’ve heard the information was leaked; I can assure you it wasn’t me,” said Councilman Jeff Brooks.

Butler said that while “this situation could have probably been handled in a better way, she does “believe that it was genuinely and honestly handled by the mayor.”

“The most alarming thing” with regards to the disclosure of Bowman’s council email and letter to Luter III ahead of the meeting “is that I’m not trusting everybody that I serve with on council now,” Butler said.


’50 cents on the dollar’

Bowman, in addition to defending his actions, disputed Harris’ characterization of the donation and required town match as “arm twisting” by Luter III.

“This money is not Steve Bowman’s money; it’s the people’s money,” Bowman said, contending Luter III is “giving it to the people.”

“You can say what you want, 50 cents on the dollar if you had to borrow $6 million is to me, I think somewhat of a gift; it’s not shoved down our throats in any shape, form or fashion,” Bowman said. “If you decide, if the council decides … that they want to send every dime of it back and give away 50 cents on the dollar, $6 million that could do capital projects … go right ahead that’s what you’ve elected these folks for. Tell them that’s what you want to do.”

Butler was more skeptical, stating she needs “clarification to know what Mr. Luter’s expectations are.”

“Unless we can come to some clarification for exactly what the funds are going to be used for I’m going to be hard-pressed to support this donation,” Butler said. “There’s going to have to be clear delineation of funds being injected into anything as far as the Grange is concerned because other than the $1.4 million into the farmers market, I don’t think the town of Smithfield or Town Council has committed to any funding for the Grange project.”

Luter III, through his son, had previously offered $1 million and land in 2022 for moving the town’s farmers market to the Grange, contingent on the town and Isle of Wight County each committing up to $1.4 million in local funds, which both governing boards agreed to contribute in October of that year.

“I don’t see this as a gift,” said Brooks, who joined Councilman Michael Smith in casting the two dissenting votes on the Grange rezoning in December.

“Next week is my wife’s birthday; I’m thinking about getting her a bike,” Brooks said. “Do I give her a bike and say, hey, in return, I want a bike? No, you don’t do that. And I don’t want to make light of the situation, but this is a very, very serious matter and we’ve only heard about it last Thursday, and we’re going to need a lot more dialogue.”

Bowman, who read his email to the council and letter to Luter III aloud, asserted that citizens in attendance, many of whom had spoken against the Grange rezoning in December, “aren’t really concerned about what went on as far as these emails” but rather were still experiencing “heartburn” over the rezoning vote.

“That’s why you’re here tonight, a significant part,” Bowman said. “I call it like it is.”