Herndon Town Councilmember Grace Wolf Cunningham is facing a civil suit filed by a trio of candidates, including two current councilmembers, who allege Cunningham, also a council candidate, engaged in malicious prosecution over the summer.
The Sept. 24 suit, filed by Cesar del Aguila, Sheila Olem and Signe Friedrichs, alleges that Cunningham filed three complaints with the Virginia Department of Elections claiming the candidates violated state campaign ad law based on “personal, vindictive reasons.”
Cunningham filed the complaints following a meeting by Dranesville Magisterial District Democratic Committee, which met in late June to recommend six candidates to the Fairfax County Democratic Committee for endorsement. Cunningham was the only candidate who was not recommended by the committee, according to the complaint.
All three complaints were unanimously dismissed by the Virginia State Board of Elections on Sept. 20. Four days after the decision, which took about a minute-and-a-half to reach, the candidates filed the civil suit against Cunningham.
In an email to Reston Now, Cunningham, who has served on the Town Council since 2010, said there was not much to comment on because the matter is ongoing litigation. A motion by her attorney to dismiss the case was denied earlier today.
John Farrell, the plaintiff’s attorney, said a decision on the case is pending and subpoenas to six of Cunningham’s “allies,” including Town of Herndon Mayor Lisa Merkel, have been delivered.
“We believe this was a concerted effort and that there are documents that she sent them that prove that she was filing her case for malicious reasons,” Farrell said.
The first complaint against Friedrichs stated a grip card that said “Herndon’s Future is Happening Now: Let’s plan it together” contained no identification about the campaign committee that paid for the card. The second complaint against del Aguila did not form a campaign committee and did not file any campaign finance disclosure reports. TThe final complaint against Olem challenges a grip card that stated “Moving Forward Herndon.”
The state’s elections board found all of Cunningham’s complaints were unfounded.
Del Aguila, Olem and Friedrichs are seeking $50,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 punitive damages. Olem and Friedrichs are current councilmembers.
The complaint filed by the trio goes on to say that Cunningham sought to damage the other candidates’ electoral prospects by “subjecting them to unfounded allegations of campaign advertisement violations, and by forcing them to defend themselves at a public hearing before the Virginia State Board of Elections.”
That process damaged the candidates public standing and threatened their electoral prospects, according to the complaint. It also states that Cunningham was “willful, wanton, and malicious, in the sense of acting with ill will, malevolence, grudge, spite, wicked intention, and a conscious disregard for Plaintiffs’ rights.”
Descriptions of the dismissed complaints filed by Cunningham are below and were obtained by Reston Now:
“Cesar Del Aguila is a candidate for Town Council in the Town of Herndon and running in the Nov 6th General Election. His affiliates have been doorknocking and handing out his campaign literature that is allegedly paid for and authorized by “Friends of Cesar” – there is no campaign committee of that name in the entire state,
Cesar Del Aguila has violated campaign finance reporting requirements that he form a campaign committee nor has he filed any of the required campaign finance disclosure reports.
Signe Friedrichs is a candidate for Town Council and up for election in the Nov 6th General Election in the Town of Herndon. Residents are being doorknocked and handed her campaign literature that does not have any disclaimers as to who paid and authorized this piece of printed campaign literature.
No identification of whose campaign committee paid for and authorized this palm card [by Signe for Herndon]”.
Photo via Virginia Department of Elections