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Background checks, ‘red flag’ bills passed
House of Delegates passes seven gun control measures Northam backs

The Virginia House of Delegates on Thursday cleared seven gun control measures largely along party lines, putting them a step closer to Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.

Democrats passed measures calling for universal background checks, a “red flag” law to temporarily remove guns from people in crisis, and new power for localities to adopt gun ordinances, among other proposals long touted by Democrats.

“Today we answer the majority of Virginians who called for gun violence prevention legislation at the polls last November,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.

Republicans opposed several of the measures on the House floor to no avail, overtaken by the chamber’s new Democratic majority.

Del. Nick Rush, R-Montgomery, spoke against the local control bill introduced by Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, arguing that the bill could lead to dramatically different rules for gun possession across the state, resulting in confusion.

“This broadly written bill would allow any locality to put any restrictions on firearms,” Rush said.

Price argued that while the bill grants authority, it doesn’t encourage localities to move on gun ordinances. She said that if they do, they would still be bound by state and federal laws.

A bill by Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, to enact a red flag law in the state also brought about debate. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, said on the floor that she took issue with arguments by Republicans that they did not think it was appropriate to give a magistrate, instead of a judge, the power to authorize the removal of guns.

Carroll Foy, a former magistrate in Richmond, said she had the power to issue or reject arrest warrants and other restrictive legal orders, and that it was work she and her peers were highly conscientious about.

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, said that whatever powers magistrates already hold, “clearly this is an expansion of government power.”

Democrats also cleared measures to make it a felony to recklessly leave firearms near children, to require the reporting of lost or stolen firearms, to ban guns from people with restraining orders, and to limit the purchase of handguns to one a month.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate eventually will have to resolve any differences between the gun bills each chamber has passed. Both the red flag and universal background check proposals passed by the House differ from their Senate counterparts.

Despite differing language on some bills, the General Assembly appears poised to approve most of the eight gun measures pitched by Northam. The House has not yet taken up a proposed assault weapons ban sponsored by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria.

Levine's guardianship bill faces unexpected last-minute objection from bar association lawyer

For the third year, Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, proposed a bill intended to strengthen family members’ and loved ones’ rights to visit adults who are under legal guardianship. After spending a year working with numerous stakeholder groups to refine the bill into something everyone agreed upon, he was surprised when a lawyer from the Virginia Bar Association stood in opposition during the bill’s subcommittee hearing.

Levine’s first attempt at the bill was inspired by a constituent, Mike Jacobs, who came to Levine with a story about how he had been unfairly banned from seeing his longtime partner, Jane Lopez, who had Alzheimer’s disease, by an attorney serving as Lopez’s legal guardian, Levine said.

Shannon Laymon-Pecoraro, an elder attorney representing the Wills, Estates and Trusts Section of the state bar association, objected to several parts of the bill. Among them is a provision that would place greater emphasis on the guardian ad litem determining whether any conflicts of interest exist among the parties in the guardianship case. A guardian ad litem is an attorney appointed by the court to investigate a guardianship case and represent the allegedly incapacitated person’s best interests.

“It’s our position that the guardian ad litem is not an ethics expert and it’s the attorneys’ job themselves to determine whether or not there’s an ethical issue,” said Laymon-Pecoraro, who asked that the bill be delayed another year. “We have proposed that because this is a major overhaul and the bill has continued to evolve rapidly over the course of the last few months, that we not act in haste and that instead that we continue to work with Del. Levine.”

Levine said that provision in the bill was intended to addresses issues like those reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch three-part investigative series into guardianship that revealed that VCU Health System and other health care providers were taking low-income patients to court and requesting that their own attorney be appointed the patient’s guardian. The guardianship orders gave the hospital’s attorney control over the patient’s medical decisions and finances. The series also found that the same guardian ad litem was employed in nearly 90% of all of VCU Health’s guardianship cases over the past six years and that her fees were paid by VCU Health.

“Hospitals are sometimes trying to get rid of difficult patients — difficult because they cost the hospital a lot of money — so they get their guardian and their guardian ad litem and they all pay these people and then no one’s there to represent the interest [of the patient],” Levine said, in defense of the provision. “The point is so the judge knows who’s paying the fees.”

He also referenced Yolanda Bell, a Manassas resident who attended the subcommittee hearing to advocate for the bill. Her sister was put under guardianship at the request of Inova Health System and she later faced visitation restrictions imposed by her sister’s guardians.

“As a family of faith, our religious beliefs are very important to us, and because of the severe restrictions imposed by the guardians, even clergy were turned away from my sister,” Bell told the subcommittee. “She was not able to receive the last rites of the church.”

Laymon-Pecoraro also objected to a provision in the bill that would allow a close relative or intimate partner to request a court-appointed lawyer on behalf of the allegedly incapacitated person. Under current law, the incapacitated person has a right to a court-appointed lawyer, but only if requested. And it is up to the guardian ad litem to determine whether a lawyer is needed even if the patient requests one.

“The right to counsel is a due process right of the respondent and not that of anybody else,” Laymon-Pecoraro said.

The Times-Dispatch investigation found that the guardian ad litem in the majority of health care provider-sponsored guardianship petitions in Richmond almost never recommended a lawyer for the patient, and on at least one occasion, said she did not believe it was necessary even though the allegedly incapacitated person requested it.

Levine expressed frustration that the bar association’s concerns were not brought to him before the subcommittee meeting and said that the latest draft of the bill — draft 23 — addresses the concerns Laymon-Pecoraro had detailed.

“I can give a point-by-point rebuttal to every single — every single issue she raised is addressed in the substitute because I have been working with [the Virginia Academy of Elder Law Attorneys] and AARP and the National Guardianship Association and Alzheimer’s [Association],” Levine told the subcommittee members.

Laymon-Pecoraro said that the Wills, Trusts and Estates Section of the state bar association had not attempted to discuss the legislation with Levine and that the section members had only been able to discuss the bill the previous Friday.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, who is a health care lawyer, said that he had mobilized elder law attorneys to help stop Levine’s guardianship bill during the last legislative session and that he was disappointed that concerns with the bill still hadn’t been addressed.

Levine said that Virginia Bar Association representatives were involved with discussions around the bill and that he had incorporated all of their suggestions.

Brad Brickhouse, an elder law attorney who opposed Levine’s bill last year, said he supports the version presented to the committee.

“I still disagree with Del. Levine on pretty much everything else, but this bill is OK,” Brickhouse said. “I can’t think of any group that wasn’t at the table.”

The subcommittee directed Levine and Laymon-Pecoraro to work on a compromise in time for the bill to be heard again Friday.

“My impression from the way we do things here though is we kind of like to kick everybody out and tell them to come back when they’ve worked their differences out,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, a member of the subcommittee. “Perhaps this can be ready by Friday, if not it can go by for the session.”

Levine said he was willing to hash out the details with Laymon-Pecoraro on Wednesday night after the subcommittee meeting, but that she did not have authority to negotiate on the state bar association’s behalf. Instead, she directed him to Tom Yates, chair of the legislative committee of the bar association’s Wills, Trusts and Estates Section.

Yates and Alison Zizzo, who represented the Virginia Bar Association in stakeholder meetings to discuss Levine’s bill, did not respond to questions sent Thursday.

Another House subcommittee agreed Wednesday to send a letter to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the state’s oversight arm, requesting a study of guardianship and ways to prevent abuse, which was proposed by Levine and Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William.

Chesterfield man, 18, charged with killing Lyft driver, 79, who was giving the suspect a ride

An 18-year-old Chesterfield County man was charged Thursday with fatally shooting a 79-year-old Lyft driver who was giving the suspect a ride early Monday in a killing that occurred in the same block as the suspect’s home.

Bernard E. Smith, 18, of the 2900 block of Providence Creek Road, was charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony in the slaying of Franklin L. “Frank” Farrens, 79, who lived near Old Bermuda Hundred Road and Golf Course Road in Chester, about 20 miles away from the scene of his killing.

Chesterfield police Capt. Jay Thornton said Farrens was employed through Lyft as a driver for the ride-hailing company and Smith was his passenger. Investigators believe Farrens was fatally shot in his four-door Volkswagen between 4 and 4:30 a.m. in the 2900 block of Providence Road.

“The Lyft fare terminated in the neighborhood that we believe [the suspect] is residing in,” Thornton said.

A neighbor’s Ring doorbell camera captured an image of Farrens’ car hitting a homeowner’s mailbox about 4 a.m. before rolling across the street and into a parked car. The footage also showed a person running from the scene.

“We have looked at that, and we have used that as part of our theory of what happened,” Thornton said. “So that has been a benefit.”

“We did canvass quite a few neighbors and homes in that area, and Ring doorbell cameras and home surveillance cameras ... are very common in that area,” he added. “And we were able to develop some additional evidence that was helpful in the case.”

Police said at this point there is no indication that Farrens was killed during a robbery.

“We’re still working on a reason why all this happened,” Thornton said, adding, “We may never know.”

Smith was not charged with first-degree murder, which requires premeditation.

“The more suitable charge at this point is second-degree murder,” Thornton said.

Police received a call at 6:31 a.m. Monday reporting a car crash with injuries in the 2900 block of Providence Creek Road. The neighborhood is off Courthouse Road and south of the Powhite Parkway extension.

The crash call quickly evolved into a homicide investigation with a significant police response.

“He was just doing his job and somebody took his life,” Catherine Farrens, the victim’s wife, said in an interview Thursday.

Frank Farrens’ wife and two of his daughters — Lynn Reynolds of Vancouver, Wash., and Jessica Stephenson, who lives in the Richmond area — gathered at a restaurant in Chester to share a meal and their memories of the man they all deeply loved.

All three said they are struggling to come to terms with what happened. Catherine Farrens said her husband of 20 years was retired but he disliked staying home all day, so he began working for Uber — another popular ride-hailing company — and then Lyft about 3½ years ago. He recently received from Lyft a jacket in recognition of providing his 1,000th ride.

“He loved meeting people; he loved talking to people,” and those were also reasons why he enjoyed driving, Farrens said.

As a driver for Lyft, Farrens’ routine was to get up at 3 a.m. and take fares until about 10 a.m. Family members believe his first fare on Monday was the young man whom police have charged in his slaying.

“He had some [earlier] experiences that really scared him,” Stephenson said. On two occasions customers “got right in his face” in a threatening manner but didn’t harm him, she said.

Although concerned about how some of his customers behaved, Farrens didn’t feel compelled to carry a firearm in his car for protection, although he was a gun owner, Stephenson said.

Family members encouraged him to install a GoPro camera inside his car that could record any trouble.

The camera and the lighted Lyft sign that Farrens was required to display while working had been removed from the dashboard of his car before he was found by police, family members said. His cellphone was found smashed but his wallet was left behind, they said.

“We are deeply saddened by this tragic incident, and our hearts are with Franklin’s family and friends during this difficult time,” Lyft spokesperson Dana Davis said in a statement. “We take all matters involving safety extremely seriously, and are working with law enforcement to assist in the investigation.”

Farrens was described as a “giver” who at times went above and beyond to assist some of his passengers.

Less than a year ago, Farrens reoriented his work schedule for about six months for a young woman with a substance-abuse problem so he could give her a ride daily to a local methadone clinic. He would stay until she finished treatment and then drive her home. The woman would always have in tow her young daughter, and Farrens would bring the girl a bag of candy.

“He would talk about the woman and little girl, [saying] she’s trying to get her life on track,” Stephenson recalled.

Family members also recalled how Farrens took under his wing an older woman with disabilities. The woman could barely get around and Farrens gave her rides on multiple occasions, sometimes at no charge, when she couldn’t afford to pay.

The woman occasionally would panhandle on the street, and Farrens and his wife would assist her with groceries, which on Thanksgiving would include turkey and ham with all the fixings.

“That’s just who he was,” Stephenson said.

Farrens, who grew up in Portland, Ore., and lived much of his life in Washington state, was a Vietnam War veteran who made a living doing a variety of things.

He owned and operated several restaurants and bars and a hair and nail salon outside of Virginia, and after experiencing some health problems, moved in 2017 from Florida to Chesterfield so Stephenson could help care for him and his wife.

Family members said Farrens also was regarded as an entrepreneur and acquired a patent he sold to an Australian company for a device he invented that could inject cows with vaccines without a needle.

But Farrens also had a silly side. “He was kind of goofy. He loved to laugh and have a good time,” Stephenson recalled.

Smith made a brief appearance Thursday in Chesterfield General District Court via a video feed from the Chesterfield Jail, where he is being held without bond.

After Judge Keith Hurley determined that Smith was indigent and couldn’t afford to hire counsel, the judge appointed defense attorney Wayne Morgan to represent him.

About a dozen of Smith’s family members were in court for the brief hearing. Smith’s preliminary hearing was set for March 2.

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In blow to Navy Hill plan, Bourne drops bill to devote state sales tax to Coliseum replacement

In another blow to backers of the $1.5 billion Navy Hill plan, a Richmond delegate has dropped an effort to devote state sales taxes to replacing the Richmond Coliseum.

Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, on Thursday withdrew his support for legislation he filed that would have steered $55.7 million worth of sales tax revenue over 30 years to the massive, mixed-use economic development project centering on a new downtown arena. A House of Delegates subcommittee, with Bourne’s deference, voted unanimously to lay the bill on the table.

A bill that is laid on the table is not officially killed and can be reconsidered this session, but it’s unlikely the legislation will be brought forward again this session.

“This is not a decision that was reached lightly,” Bourne said in an interview after the vote. “It is a tool that, if other localities in Virginia are going to have it, I feel Richmond should have it, but at the right time.”

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and developers behind the plans have said the revenue generated because of the bill would help dramatically reduce the size of a special tax zone that has been a major stumbling block for the project.

Bourne cited growing opposition to the project from members of the Richmond City Council as his reason for essentially withdrawing the bill.

“There have been some recent developments on the City Council which suggest that more conversation is probably needed,” he told the committee, alluding to a resolution introduced Monday by a majority of the council to scrap the plans.

Bourne left the decision for what to do with the bill in the hands of the subcommittee. Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, the subcommittee’s chairwoman, suggested laying the bill on the table, a common action for bills that patrons no longer support. Subcommittee members backed the idea.

Jim Nolan, a spokesman for Stoney, said the administration would continue “working with the community to improve” the Navy Hill project.

“As friends, the mayor understands Delegate Bourne’s decision, as council’s action on Monday demonstrated some members are not interested in working toward solutions,” he said.

Bourne’s decision comes days after a majority of the City Council asked Stoney to pull back the plans and issue a new solicitation to develop the publicly owned downtown real estate around the existing Coliseum. The council’s request represented the clearest signal yet that the project does not have the necessary support to win approval; that would require seven of nine votes. A final vote is scheduled for Feb. 24.

Stoney immediately dismissed the council request, which he called “laughable” and “selfish.” Some on the council said earlier this week that they still believed a compromise could be reached.

The size of the zone, called a tax increment financing district, or TIF, has fueled criticism of the project for siphoning away too large a chunk of city real estate tax revenue.

Bourne’s bill would have allowed the city to use sales tax revenue generated in an area bounded by Leigh Street, Franklin Street, Third Street and 10th Street to pay back bondholders who invested in the new arena. The state backed a similar arrangement for the city of Virginia Beach as it was pursuing a new arena in 2018.

Nolan said Richmond should have the same option.

“Regardless of whether it’s used for Navy Hill, there’s no reason this tool for economic development shouldn’t be available to Richmond, as it is for other cities,” he said.

Bourne said his bill was not an endorsement of the Navy Hill deal. Still, it drew blowback from opponents of the project, who said it simply diverted another pot of public money to pay for the plans.

They also criticized Bourne as carrying water for his biggest campaign donor: Dominion Energy. He said the $24,500 in donations he received from Dominion and its CEO, Thomas F. Farrell II, during his most recent re-election bid did not play a role in his decision to sponsor the legislation.

The Stoney administration said Bourne’s bill would help reduce the size of the zone from 80 downtown blocks to those where the development would rise, as well as two downtown office towers owned by Dominion Energy. Farrell leads the development group that pitched the city the plans back in 2018.

Stoney and Farrell’s group have cited Bourne’s bill as evidence that they have heeded concerns from members of the council, a citizen advisory commission that studied the deal and residents.

Jeff Kelley, a spokesman for NH District Corp., said the setback wouldn’t stop the developers from figuring out a different way to shrink the size of the tax zone.

“Regardless of this outcome, we have committed to reducing the size of the [TIF] and are exploring other avenues to help us achieve that goal,” he said.

In addition to the arena, the Navy Hill proposal calls for more than 2,000 apartments and condominiums; a high-rise hotel; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements.

Game's afoot - House panel bans electronic 'skill' games, but OKs sports betting, internet lottery sales

The table is almost set for the House of Delegates to open Virginia to sports betting and internet lottery sales, but electronic “skill games” won’t be part of the action unless the Senate brokers a path to regulate them.

The House General Laws Committee on Thursday endorsed a gaming subcommittee’s recommendations to ban electronic skill games, potentially unplugging thousands of machines already installed in retail outlets across Virginia. The state blames the machines for a big drop in Virginia Lottery sales and profits this fiscal year.

House Bill 881, introduced by General Laws Chairman David Bulova, D-Fairfax, will go directly to the House floor. If the House passes the measure, the last hope for skill game operators would lie in the Senate. That chamber’s Finance and Appropriations Committee will consider the only remaining proposal for regulating and taxing the games, as well as competing bills to ban them or also allow slot machines to compete in restaurants, truck stops and stores.

Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, proposed the ban in a substitute bill that the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee endorsed on Wednesday and sent to her committee for review. Howell has said she would support a ban of the skill games unless their operators agree to a substantially higher tax rate than they have offered to pay so far.

“If they’re looking for leverage over us, they got it,” said Tom Lisk, a veteran Richmond lobbyist for Queen of Virginia Skill & Entertainment, which has installed about 7,500 unlicensed and untaxed devices across the state.

The House General Laws Committee also approved legislation that would allow the lottery to sell its products online and would legalize betting on professional sporting events and college athletic competitions that don’t involve Virginia colleges and universities. However, the House Appropriations Committee first must review House Bill 896, sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, who is vice chairman of the budget committee.

Sickles has promised to address unresolved concerns about how the legislation would protect professional athletes who participate in games that would be open to betting in Virginia.

“I don’t see anything for the players,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, who, along with Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, abstained from voting on the measure until their concerns are satisfied.

Sickles is discussing the concerns with the National Football League Players Association. “They are worried about protecting themselves” from backlash over the outcomes of the games they play, he said.

The legislation, which the panel adopted on a 14-3 vote, with two abstentions, would be one of two legislative vehicles for legalizing sports betting in Virginia. States were freed to do so under a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018.

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee will consider Senate Bill 384, proposed by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, which the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee endorsed on Wednesday.

Both bills would allow the lottery board to regulate sports betting, grant a limited number of licenses for betting operations, and impose a 20% tax on their adjusted gross revenues.

McPike’s bill would allow betting on all collegiate sporting events, as well as professional games and tournaments, while Sickles’ would block betting on Virginia collegiate sports. Neither would allow betting on youth sporting events.

Sickles’ bill also would ban bets from being placed on collegiate events after the games had begun.

Both bills also would free the lottery to sell its traditional products online in addition to in retail stores. That has raised concerns by 7-Eleven that online sales could reduce foot traffic in stores and hurt discretionary sales of other products.

The sports betting and internet lottery measures have drawn less attention than the heavily lobbied battles over skill games and the potential legalization of casino gambling, which is scheduled to come before gaming subcommittees in both chambers next week.

Queen of Virginia, owned by Georgia-based Pace-O-Matic, and other electronic game manufacturers contend their products are legal under current Virginia law because they are games of skill, not chance.

The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority has not found the games to be illegal but has left the determination to local prosecutors. So far, only the Charlottesville commonwealth’s attorney’s office has ruled the games illegal, and Queen of Virginia has filed suit against the prosecutor.

A coalition of slot machine operators, led by Las Vegas-based Golden Entertainment, contends that the distinction between games of skill and chance is an illusion. The slot machine companies don’t currently have authority to distribute the devices in Virginia, but they favor the proposed ban of skill games to provide a level playing field for potential competition.

Richmond lawyer Steve Baril, who represents the slot machine companies, called the 19-1 House committee vote for the ban “a blowout.”

“It’s probably best for Virginia,” Baril said. “It clears the way for the commonwealth to make some decisions about these gaming devices and how you proceed.”