Could one of Virginia’s longest-serving Democrats — a former federal prosecutor, no less — help get President Trump’s former campaign chairman acquitted of the bank and tax fraud charges he faces?
Possibly. We at The Roanoke Times might help, too.
Intrigued? Follow along: Last week, attorneys for Paul Manafort asked the judge presiding over his upcoming trial in federal court to move the case to Roanoke.
The legal reasoning begins like this: The jury pool in Roanoke is likely to be more conservative than the one in Alexandria. Voters in the court’s Alexandria division voted 2-1 for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, the change-of-venue motion points out. By contrast, it says “this split is more balanced” in the Roanoke division. If you believe that this is a political trial, and not an ordinary financial crimes trial (which is what Manafort argues), then it’s completely understandable that he’d want a more conservative jury pool.
However, to say the jury pool is “more balanced” in the Roanoke division is a bit of legal sleight of hand. The federal court in Roanoke draws a jury pool from Alleghany County in the north to Grayson County in the south and Franklin County to the east. In that area, Trump took 62 percent of the vote, Clinton just 36.5 percent. If Manafort’s attorneys wanted to be even more clever, they’d ask to move the trial to the federal courthouses in either Abingdon or Big Stone Gap. In the localities those courthouses draw from, Trump’s worst showing was 69.9 percent in Norton; his best was 81.7 percent in both Scott and Tazewell counties.
The other legal argument for a change of venue is that potential jurors in Northern Virginia are paying more attention to the case than ones in Southwest Virginia.
Manafort’s filing reads: The Washington metro area “ranks first in the nation in households with computers (82.9 percent) and internet access (80 percent of adults receiving information online). For news consumption, the city’s major mainstream print and broadcast outlets command the most online page views in the United States. In comparison, Roanoke is the 70th largest media outlet in the United States and 38 percent of households in Roanoke lack broadband compared to 3 percent in Northern Virginia.”
There’s some more legal sleight of hand going on here, by comparing apples to oranges. Yes, it’s true that Washington’s “major mainstream print and broadcast outlets command the most online page views in the United States” — but that’s also because The Washington Post is a national newspaper with a national, even international, audience. Just because Roanoke is a smaller market doesn’t necessarily people here are any less informed — there’s just fewer of us.
The more relevant comparison is the broadband one. For that, Manafort’s attorneys drew from a commentary by state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, that appeared in The Roanoke Times in February in which Edwards made the case that rural Virginia is falling behind economically because large portions of it lack broadband. That’s a pretty standard argument that both Democrats and Republicans have made — although it’s deliciously ironic that Manafort’s filing quotes an op-ed by a well-known Virginia Democrat.
Manafort’s filing misstates the date Edwards’ op-ed was published — it ran on Feb. 25, not Feb. 28 as mentioned in the filing. That’s an incidental mistake of no real consequence. However, the filing also misquotes Edwards’ commentary in a more substantive way. The filing says that “38 percent of households in Roanoke lack broadband compared to 3 percent in Northern Virginia.” What Edwards actually wrote was “In rural Virginia, 38 percent of homes lack access to broadband, while only 3 percent of households in Northern Virginia lack broadband service.” That’s a somewhat different thing — it depends on whether you consider Roanoke to be “rural.” (We would not.) The website Broadbandnow.com says that in the city of Roanoke, 96.6 percent of the population has access to broadband, not that different from Alexandria at 99.2 percent. It’s in rural areas where the lack of broadband is more acute. Manafort’s basic point is correct — there’s less broadband in this part of the state than Northern Virginia — but the figures he cites are off.
Ultimately, these are quibbles. The more worrisome part about his filing is the implication that people in Southwest Virginia are less informed than those in Northern Virginia. Is that really true? We may not be as wrapped up in the case as people in Northern Virginia — where politics is the biggest local industry— but is there really a registered voter in Southwest Virginia who has not heard of Manafort’s indictment and special counsel Robert Mueller’s larger investigation? We may not have as much broadband as Northern Virginia, and the broadband we have may not be as fast, but we’re not ignorant.
Again, Manafort is right to want to move his trial out of a community that went 2-1 against Trump. Roanoke ought to welcome the trial — think of what a weeks-long national trial would mean for hotels and restaurants. It would also be a good opportunity for Roanoke to tell its story nationally. There’s also a danger here, and that’s how we’d get portrayed: The New York Times headlined that Manafort wants his trial moved “hundreds of miles from Washington,” which is factually true but also seems to conjure up the notion that we’re hicks and rubes who couldn’t possibly understand the nuances of international finance and might be easily snookered by fast-talking lawyers. Perhaps we’re a little sensitive on that point, but we think we have good reason to be. The FBI agent Peter Strzok — the one now infamous for sending text messages that the bureau would “stop” Trump from becoming president — also sent text messages calling voters in Loudoun County “ignorant hillbillies.” In context, that is a slur. Loudoun County is, by some measures, the wealthiest county in the country. If Strzok thinks those voters are “ignorant hillbillies,” what in the world would he think of Southwest Virginia?
If the trial comes to Roanoke, we should welcome it as a sign that we’re fair-minded people who can judge the case on its merits and not its politics. But we should also be prepared to push back against any suggestion that we’re clueless people who don’t follow the news.