By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Oct. 4 — Perhaps the best way to summarize Tuesday’s proceedings against former Page County Finance Director Dennis Click would be to share the analogy presented by the presiding judge just before he granted the defense’s motion to strike and dismissed the felony charge for obtaining money from the county coffers by false pretenses.
“It’s like a factory worker who asks his supervisor, can I take this?…and being told ‘No’… then he walks out with it [later], and shows the supervisor…here’s the [item]… and the supervisor says ‘Okay’,” Judge Clarke A. Ritchie said during the jury trial in Page County Circuit Court.
At question were more than $13,000 in payments from county funds made between June 21, 2017 and May 28, 2020 to Chardon State College for tuition, fees and access codes to online books so Click could pursue a masters degree. County Administrator Amity Moler testified on Tuesday that she was “shocked and disappointed” to discover the discrepancy in late May 2020 — about two months before Click’s employment in Page County was terminated on July 27, 2020 following the launch of a state police investigation.
“He said he wasn’t trying to be sneaky…he felt it was part of his job,” Moler testified. She stated that there was a conversation at least six months (or maybe a year) before she discovered the issue in which she specifically told Click that the “county doesn’t pay for masters degrees.” She recalled that Click replied that “the county should look into it.”
“He said he didn’t realize that he needed approval,” Moler said, because the funds came through the “education account” within the Finance Department (which Click managed as head of the department) to support training for staff.
Commonwealth’s witness Christina Taylor, who has worked in the county finance department for nearly two decades, stated that Click made the charges on an Amazon credit card that the county used for various purchases in various departments. Taylor said she never questioned the charges that her boss made on the Amazon card.
“It was training and it pertained to his job,” Taylor testified. “I had no reason to think he hadn’t gotten approval.”
In her opening remarks, Sarah Endres, assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Rockingham County who served as special prosecutor, stated that Click was taking “classes that [Moler] did not know about” and described a meeting between the two “in which [Click] expressed no remorse, but agreed to pay [the money] back.”
However, defense attorney Aaron Cook of Harrisonburg presented 15 exhibits that showed each of Click’s educational expenses were reviewed by staff in the Finance Department, signed off on by the county administrator, paid with checks signed by the county treasurer, and then unanimously approved on the monthly warrant list by the Page County Board of Supervisors.
“The invoices came with Mr. Click’s name on it before he took the class,” Cook said in his opening statement. “There’s no white out…there is no false representation…there are no lies.”
In early April, a Page County grand jury issued a direct indictment — surpassing the general district court — stating that: “On, about, or between the 21st day of June, 2017, and the 28th day of May, 2020, in the County of Page, Virginia, Dennis Lee Click Jr. did unlawfully and feloniously obtain, by false pretense or token, with the intent to defraud, currency belonging to Page County and valued at $1,000 or more.”
During his motion to strike, Cook argued that nothing presented during the three-hour jury trial on Tuesday showed “evidence of false statements” or fraud, which are required under the statute. After dismissing the jury to discuss the procedural motion, Judge Ritchie peppered the commonwealth with some tough questions and ultimately agreed, citing a lack of evidence.
“The exhibits show that there was actual disclosure…it shows the expenses go to Chardon State College…and that was approved by Ms. Moler,” the judge stated. “Can you point to a statement where he hid or lied?”
“He was told that he couldn’t do it,” Endres responded. “The false pretense is him submitting the invoice. As county administrator, she relied on her directors to flag any irregularities.”
“But it was reviewed and authorized,” Judge Ritchie said. “The person who told him it wasn’t allowed is actually the person that approved it.”
Also in direct contrast to the felony charge, Moler stated under cross examination that Click was a “good employee” who was punctual, showed initiative and performed his job well since his hiring in November 2016. In fact an employee evaluation conducted in June 2020 — about two months prior to his termination — was glowing, and even included an increase in salary.
“Not only was he retained, but he received a performance evaluation that was exemplary and received a raise…and Amity Moler is the signee,” Judge Ritchie stated, before reading a section of the evaluation that ended with, “Thank you for all that you do.”
In 2018, Page County earned its first of two consecutive Certificate(s) of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report thanks to Click’s work. The award presented by the Government Finance Officers Association of the U.S. and Canada is considered “the highest form of recognition in government accounting and financial reporting,” according to a press release issued by the organization.
County auditors suggested applying for the award and Page County was recognized among the top counties with a population between 10,000 and 24,999 across the country. In total, about 18 percent of the more than 3,000 counties across the U.S. were recognized. Page County was rated among the top 3 percent in its population bracket, as well as being the smallest locality in the Shenandoah Valley — and the third-smallest in Virginia — to be recognized with the financial reporting award.
During the seven weeks between the discovery of the education payments and the end of Click’s employment in 2020, the county worked with its award-winning finance director and then-county attorney Nathan Miller to draft a Reimbursement Agreement for repayment of the “unauthorized” funds.
“Employer has a well-established policy that any certification, credits, educational courses which an Employee desires to take must be pre-approved by the Employer in order for the course to be paid for by the Employer,” reads the agreement dated June 2, 2020. “Employee entered into an educational program with Chardon State College to obtain an advanced degree. In violation of Employer’s policy, the expenses of those courses, materials and fees for the referenced educational program were billed to the Employer without Employer’s knowledge or pre-approval.”
“Employee agrees to reimburse Employer,” the agreement continues, “for all expenses, fees and costs in the amount of [$13,268.61] which were billed to the Employer on behalf of the Employee in violation of Employer’s policies.”
Cook claimed that Moler told his client when he was hired that he could advance his education on the county’s dime. However, the county administrator testified that, “I told him some of these [expenses] were not related to his position.”
Despite discovering the “unauthorized” charges and launching an inquiry, Moler stated that the board of supervisors did not take any disciplinary action or pursue charges because “they were very happy with the job he did and thought maybe he just misunderstood the education policy.”
Since the repayment agreement began in July 2020, Click has consistently made his monthly payments of $339.02, according to Page County Treasurer Penny Gray, who was also a witness for the commonwealth in the case. The reimbursement agreement calls for the debt to be paid off at 4-percent interest in 42 monthly installments with the amortization schedule attached to the agreement showing the final payment to be made on Dec. 1, 2023.
“There is no evidence that he ever made a statement that was false…he billed the County, and told the County what it was for…it was reviewed, dispersed and approved…and in this case, it was approved by the administrator who originally said it wouldn’t be approved,” Judge Ritchie said.
The commonwealth’s argument and Moler’s explanation suggested that not every line of every financial report is read because of the shear volume spread across more than a hundred pages and due to the review process among staff.
“The county approved it…regularly and repeatedly…they approved the expenses…after reviewing them and having staff sign off on them,” Judge Ritchie said. “Perhaps it was insubordination, perhaps it was a lack of professionalism…but there is nothing to support the charge.”
After previously residing in Elkton, Click, 34, now lives in Stuarts Draft with his wife and daughter. He worked for Page County for about four years and was hired as a controller in Albemarle County’s Department of Finance and Budget on Dec. 6, 2021.