By Carla Branch and James Cullum
Today, Alexandria’s General Registrar Tom Parkins ruled in a public hearing that City Councilwoman-elect Alicia Hughes is a lawfully registered voter in Alexandria.
“The preponderance of the evidence shows that Ms. Hughes is a registered voter in Alexandria,” Parkins said after a ten-minute review of documents and of the evidence presented.
The scope of the hearing was limited to Hughes’ residency since June 12, 2009. That was the date that three Alexandria voters filed a challenge to her voter registration and residency in the City. Parkins refused to broaden the scope of the hearing despite arguments to the contrary by counsel for the complainants, J. Gerald Hebert.
Hughes, 34, a Republican-backed Independent, was elected to the Alexandria City Council on May 5.
“The questions I must determine are whether Ms. Hughes resides in the City of Alexandria and whether she maintains a place of abode in the City of Alexandria. Conversely, Ms. Hughes, in this venue, bears the burden of proof,” Parkins said at the beginning of the hearing.
Republican Virginia State Senator Jill Vogel represented Hughes. Although Hughes’ counsel had provided a list of six witnesses, Vogel presented affidavits from those witnesses instead of asking them to appear and testify in person. Hebert listed Hughes as his only witness. After arguing that she should not have to testify, Vogel agreed for Hughes to take the witness stand.
She asked Hughes where she lives, works and where she intends to continue to live in the immediate future. Hughes responded by giving her Yoakum Parkway address in Alexandria and the Alexandria address for the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office, where she is employed.
Hebert asked Hughes where she has lived since June 12. She responded by giving her Yoakum Parkway address in Alexandria. He asked where her vehicle was registered and where she held a driver’s license on June 12 and if she was licensed to practice law in any state. Her attorney objected and Hughes refused to answer the questions. Hebert asked where Hughes paid State income tax and, once again, Vogel objected.
“I am not going to allow my client to answer questions about documents we do not have with us and about which she is not prepared to answer questions,” Vogel said. “We are only prepared to present evidence about her current residency and we have done that.”
Parkins allowed Vogel to take a ten-minute recess to confer with Hughes. When the hearing resumed, Hughes refused to answer any further questions from Hebert.
Vogel said that the hearing was initiated to embarrass her client. “We believe that the challenge to (Hughes’) voter registration is without merit and lacks any basis in fact at all…I think it’s fair to say that most people believe that the real reason that we’re here is not to defend her voter registration but to defend an assault on her character, and frankly, an effort to undermine her efforts on City Council. I think it’s politically motivated and it’s intended to demean her somewhat and to require her to come before you… I will just mention that the Councilwoman-elect is a successful, young attorney who lives in the City of Alexandria, who has worked hard here, who has devoted a lot of her personal time and her personal energy to the City of Alexandria… She lives here, sleeps here, she has a place here, she works here…”
Hebert disagreed. “This is not about politics, this is not about race. It’s about residence… There (has) been a lot of information that has been made public that we feel Alexandria authorities have a responsibility to look into, so that if Ms. Hughes takes office she does so without any clouds over her head.”
Vogel submitted as evidence Hughes’ current apartment lease from The Strand of Alexandria, her current utility bill, employment verification from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and affidavits from residents at the apartment complex who claim Hughes as their neighbor.
Hebert submitted Maryland tax documents indicating that Hughes had listed her Baltimore home as her “primary residence” as recently as June 12, and a subsequent document from the Maryland Department of Taxation, dated yesterday, indicating that her Yoakum Parkway address was listed as her current address. He also had a document from the Maryland Voter site that indicated Hughes is still a registered voter in Baltimore.
Baltimore or Alexandria?
Questions about Hughes’ residency arose shortly after her election when alexandrianews.org learned that she drove a Mercedes C230 with Maryland license tags on Election Day as she traveled to polling places throughout the City. In March, 2008, she listed this car in a garage lease agreement with The Strand, where she also rented an apartment, beginning on April 1, 2008. The garage and apartment leases became public documents when they were submitted as evidence in eviction proceedings, which The Strand initiated against Hughes in August, 2008, and, again, in March, 2009. In both instances, she had failed to pay her rent. And, in both cases, she avoided eviction by paying the past-due amounts at the last minute.
On May 22, 2009, 17 days after her election, the City of Alexandria had no record of Hughes in their personal property tax system. A June 3, 2009, check of Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration records showed the Maryland tags and a Maryland driver’s license in Hughes’ name at a Baltimore address. But the check also indicated that the State of Maryland had flagged the tags for unpaid parking tickets in Baltimore in October, 2007, and failure to have the car inspected. Virginia law requires new residents of the Commonwealth to register their vehicle within 30 days of moving to Virginia and to obtain a Virginia driver’s license within 60 days. Hughes owns the Baltimore home listed for the tags and the driver’s license.
Hughes purchased the Baltimore property at 13 S. Calhoun Street in February, 2006, and recorded the deed on May 31 of that year. In September, 2006, representatives for Hughes’ mortgage lender initiated foreclosure proceedings. These proceedings resulted in a foreclosure sale of the property on Sept. 29, 2006. The only bidder at the sale was Hughes’ lender, who agreed to a “work-out” payment plan, allowing her to retain ownership of the property.
In May, 2007, Heartwood 88, LLC, purchased the property in a tax sale for $78,091.39, of which Hughes owed $3,289.79 in taxes and other municipal liens due on the property at the time of the sale. In August, 2008, she paid Hartwood88, LLC, that amount, plus interest, and was, once again, able to retain ownership of the property. All 2006, 2007 and 2008 Baltimore court documents were sent to Hughes at her Baltimore address.
In July, 2007 and July, 2008, Hughes received a Maryland Homestead Tax Credit on her Baltimore home. Maryland residents are entitled to such tax credits on homes that are their principal residences. Until 2007, these tax credits were automatic. That year, the Maryland General Assembly changed the Homestead Tax Credit law and required all homeowners who were receiving such tax credits to apply for them. Hughes received this application in January, 2008. It was mailed to her Baltimore address and was not completed and returned. She has until 2012 to complete and return the application. However, Maryland Homestead Tax Credit officials investigate any reports of homeowners who are no longer in compliance with the law and remove the tax credit from the property as appropriate.
In February, 2008, Hughes voted in the presidential primary election in Maryland. In May, 2008, she registered to vote in Alexandria. In June, 2009, she was still registered to vote in Maryland. Her Maryland voter registration form lists her Baltimore address. In 2008 and 2009, the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation listed the Calhoun Street property as Hughes’ principal residence.
On June 10, 2008, just two months after she began living at The Strand, the Alexandria City Council appointed Hughes to serve on the City’s Social Services Advisory Board. There were no other applicants for the position. On Oct. 28, 2008, the Alexandria City Council appointed her to serve on the Alexandria Early Childhood Commission. Again, there were no other applicants for the position.
Hebert was disappointed by the decision but not surprised. “The scope of the hearing was so narrow that the outcome was not unexpected,” he said. “Today was very frustrating because Ms. Hughes wouldn’t answer any of our questions about her motor vehicle registration, her driver’s license, whether she is paying property taxes in Alexandria or about her home in Baltimore.
“We have ten days to decide whether we wish to appeal this decision to Circuit Court. Since I have not spoken to all three of my clients, we have made no definite decision about that at this time. However, my inclination is to leave the matter in the Commonwealth Attorney’s hands. He has a responsibility to investigate Ms. Hughes’ residency over the past years and a number of other issues we have brought to his attention. He has far greater investigative powers than I do and can determine whether she was a legally registered voter in Alexandria at the time she filed her application for voter registration, at the time she filed her papers to become a candidate for City Council and at the time of her election. He can also determine whether she made false statements on any legal document,” Hebert said.
Hughes and her supporters felt vindicated by Parkins’ decision.
“I’m glad the Registrar saw through the baseless allegations against Alicia Hughes,” said Chris Marston, Alexandria Republican City Committee Chair. “The challengers, all Democratic Party operatives, and their counsel, Gerry Hebert, a nationally-prominent Democratic election attorney, filed the challenge just to seek media attention. After six years of one-party rule, that the Alexandria Democrats would take out their sour grapes on an accomplished young African-American woman, is just reprehensible. It’s simply not a crime to defeat a Democrat in an Alexandria election. It’s time to move forward with the important work that faces the Alexandria City Council and stop the partisanship.”
Susan Kellom is the chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committee. “After listening to the testimony at today’s public hearing before the Alexandria Registrar, it seems that relevant residency documentation still needs to be considered by the appropriate authorities. The Alexandria Democratic Committee is not a party to these efforts nor taking any position in this matter.”
Bob Calhoun, former Virginia Republican State Sen. and former Alexandria City Councilman, also attended the hearing. “I think the hearing was fair and that the Registrar did a pretty good job,” he said. “You’re entitled to due process but not necessarily entitled to be heard.”
Although Parkins ruled that Hughes is a registered Alexandria voter, issues concerning her residency for one year prior to her May election, and whether she made false statements on any campaign or voter registration documents remain. These questions are for Alexandria Commonwealth Attorney Randy Sengel to investigate.
When Hebert filed the June 12 challenge to Hughes’ voter registration and residency, he sent it to Parkins, the Alexandria Electoral Board, Alexandria City Attorney James Banks and Sengel.
“I will investigate this matter as I would any other allegation of criminal wrongdoing,” Sengel said. “I don’t expect that I will have concluded this investigation before Ms. Hughes’ July 1 swearing in.”