LEESBURG, Va. (CN) — A state court judge refused Thursday to throw out a politically charged case brought by Virginia's attorney general accusing a former school superintendent of making a false statement about two campus rapes.
But lawyers appearing on behalf of Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares acquiesced to demands that they tell former Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler exactly why he faces a misdemeanor charge of making or publishing a false statement.
The legal dust-up in this suburban community northwest of Washington, D.C., has raised questions about the boundaries of power held by Miyares, along with the state's governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin, whose executive order prompted the investigation that led to the charges.
The underlying incident occurred in May 2021, when a high school student alleged that a boy assaulted her in a bathroom. A police investigation followed, and the boy was charged with two counts of forcible sodomy. He was released from detention while the charges were pending and placed on pretrial supervision. In the fall, he returned to a different high school and committed another sexual assault in a classroom.
The case made headlines, enraging some parents. At the same time, the Loudoun County issue "became central talking points for the successful 2021 political campaigns of Youngkin and Miyares," wrote Erin Harrigan, Ziegler's attorney, in a motion to have the case dismissed.
To further complicate matters, the controversy coincided with an unrelated issue involving a policy that allows transgender students to use the restroom of their choice. At one point during a June 22, 2021, meeting, Ziegler was asked if students had been regularly assaulted in bathrooms. He responded, "To my knowledge, we don’t have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms.” He subsequently said that in context, he understood the question as referring to transgender students, according to court papers.
In court Thursday, Brandon Wrobleski, special assistant to the attorney general, told Loudoun County Judge James Fisher that it is no secret why Ziegler faces the charge – it was over the restroom remark.
“We’re not hiding the ball,” Wrobleski said.
But Harrigan charged that the AG's office had done precisely that and overstepped their authority in the process. She described the law as "abundantly clear" that Miyares lacks authority to prosecute the case.
The indictments charging Ziegler and another school official highlight a dangerous precedent set “when the tools of criminal law enforcement are seized by statewide political officials to be used against disfavored persons,” the Gentry Locke attorney wrote in court filings.
Ziegler's legal team made the same argument during court proceedings last year, argued Theo Stamos, special assistant to the attorney general. She asserted that the law gives "a broad swath of authority to the governor to empower" the attorney general.
At one point during the hearing, Fisher reached behind the bench and pulled out a law book for a review the statute. He complimented Harrigan's detailed argument but disagreed with her conclusions. The governor, the judge said, "has the authority to do what he's done."
Ziegler, who was fired in December, faces one misdemeanor count of false publication, one misdemeanor count of prohibited conduct and one misdemeanor count of penalizing an employee for a court appearance. The second and third counts stem from claims made by a former teacher.
Wayde Byard, a former public information officer for the system, was charged with one count of felony perjury.
Byard's lawyer, Jennifer Leffler of the firm Leffler Phillips, also argued that the attorney general's office refused to answer questions about why her client had been charged.
"We need to know what they are alleging so that we can defend him," she said.
Recounting that she had been told there were multiple statements, Leffler said that she wanted to know "the statement that is the subject of the indictment."
Fisher denied her motion for a bill of particulars to more completely describe the charges. But the judge added that after attorneys complete the discovery process, Leffler can refile her motion if she still doesn't have the answers needed to put up a defense.
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