Auditor Corruption Trial Halted Amid Questions About Venue

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — The opening trial day in the criminal corruption case against Delaware’s state auditor came to an abrupt halt Tuesday when the judge decided to give attorneys more time to consider issues raised by defense arguments that the indictment against Auditor Kathy McGuiness is defective.

Judge William Carpenter Jr. ordered a halt to the proceedings after expressing concern about arguments made by defense attorney Steve Wood, and the prosecution’s response to those arguments.

Wood argued in a Wilmington courtroom that the indictment should be dismissed because it fails to allege where McGuiness’ alleged crimes occurred. Wood said venue regarding where an alleged offense occurred is among the essential elements required by Delaware law in an indictment.

McGuiness lives in Sussex County and her office is in the state capital of Dover in Kent County, but prosecutors brought the case in New Castle County.

“Nothing happened here,” said Wood, who rejected prosecution arguments that jurisdiction in New Castle County — or any county for that matter — is appropriate because McGuiness is a statewide elected official.

“I cannot find a single Delaware case that supports that,” said Wood, a veteran attorney and the state’s former chief prosecutor.

Deputy Attorney General Maria Knoll argued the indictment is sufficient for trial because McGuiness serves all three counties, and because her alleged crimes affected all three counties.

Judge Carpenter appeared skeptical of that argument, noting that “for centuries,” the county where an alleged offense occurred is the venue where the case is prosecuted. Carpenter, who has been a Superior Court judge for almost 30 years, indicated that he was unaware of any other case in which the attorney general’s office argued that venue lies in all three counties.

“That causes the court some concern, to be candid,” the judge said, suggesting that, under the prosecution’s reasoning, McGuiness could be tried in New Castle County for a hypothetical murder that occurred in Sussex County because of her status as a statewide official.

“I am very reluctant to change venue from a conduct review versus a status review,” said Carpenter, adding that basing venue on McGuiness’s status as a statewide official would be “a pretty radical change” in centuries of Delaware law.

While refusing to dismiss the indictment, Carpenter said prosecutors have a choice to make. They can either proceed in New Castle County and risk having him grant a defense motion for acquittal after they rest their case if they were unable to establish proper venue through evidence and testimony. The alternative, he said, is to drop the case and re-indict McGuiness in Kent County.

Attorneys huddled behind closed doors for about half an hour before Carpenter announced he would grant them more time to consider their options.

“It is clear that some significant decisions need to be made, and it would be unfair for either side for those decisions to be made in a rush,” said Carpenter, who will reconvene court Wednesday morning.

McGuiness, a Democrat who was elected in 2018 and is responsible for rooting out government fraud, waste and abuse, was indicted in October on felony counts of theft and witness intimidation, and misdemeanor charges of official misconduct, conflict of interest and noncompliance with procurement laws. She has denied any wrongdoing.

The charges include allegations that McGuiness hired her daughter as a temporary employee in May 2020, even though other temporary employees had left because of the lack of available work amid the coronavirus pandemic. McGuiness is also accused of orchestrating a no-bid “communications services” contract for a company she had used as a campaign consultant when running for lieutenant governor in 2016, then deliberately keeping the contract payments under $5,000 to avoid having to get approval from the Division of Accounting.

Authorities also allege that when employees in her office became aware of McGuiness’ misconduct, she responded by trying to intimidate the whistleblowers, including monitoring their email accounts.