Ed. — From the Sunday, Sept. 20, print edition.
COURTHOUSE — A grand jury has indicted a former Virginia Beach School Board candidate on charges of alleged election fraud and filing a forged document.
Justin Burns, a college student who in late August ended his candidacy in the at-large School Board race, is accused of making a false statement or entry in a report under a section of election law and representing a forged document as true, according to a copy of the Tuesday, Sept. 8, indictment filed in Virginia Beach Circuit Court. The charges are felonies.
The matter appears to be related to paperwork submitted by the campaign this summer, though there are few details in the indictment about the specifics of the alleged offenses.
The registrar in Virginia Beach referred concerns about nominating petitions filed by Burns to the commonwealth’s attorney this summer.
“I am not aware of that,” Burns said during a telephone interview on Friday, Sept. 18. “There was an inquiry, but I’m not aware of any indictment.”
Burns said he was only learning about the indictment from a reporter, and he could not comment further about it.
The events at issue happened in early June, according to the indictment, around the time Burns’ campaign was dealing with the Virginia Beach Voter Registration & Elections office regarding paperwork so the candidate could appear on the ballot. There was a Tuesday, June 9, filing deadline.
On Thursday, Sept. 17, Burns spoke by telephone with The Independent News about why he left the School Board race in August, but the interview — and a resulting online story by The Independent News about Burns exiting the campaign — took place before the newspaper learned about the indictment.
An online court record reviewed on Friday, Sept. 18, shows a capias has been issued for Burns, but no other details were available. It was uncertain why Burns had not yet been served or notified.
A special prosecutor in Gloucester County could not be reached for comment about the matter because his office said he was on vacation.
During an interview on Friday, Sept. 18, Donna Patterson, Virginia Beach’s director of Voter Registration & Election, said her office referred concerns about nominating petitions filed by Burns to the commonwealth’s attorney in Virginia Beach this summer.
Patterson said her office does not have the authority to investigate, so such matters are referred to the commonwealth’s attorney.
“There were signatures that looked very similar,” Patterson said, speaking of the nominating petitions.
Macie Allen, a spokesperson for Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle, said during a telephone interview that the office sought a special prosecutor in the case to avoid any potential appearance of a conflict.
“Mr. Burns volunteered on some of Mr. Stolle’s political campaigns,” Allen said on Friday, Sept. 18.
Burns is a Virginia Wesleyan University student who had been seeking an at-large seat on the School Board.
However, his name does not appear on the ballot in Virginia Beach because he signed paperwork to end his candidacy on Wednesday, Aug. 26, according to a record filed with the Virginia Beach Department of Voter Registration & Elections.
During an interview on Thursday, Sept. 17, Burns told The Independent News he decided to leave the race after not being able to campaign due to restrictions related to the novel coronavirus.
“I withdrew to support another candidate who I believe has a better chance of winning,” Burns said, reached by telephone. “We were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and not being able to do much.”
Burns attracted media attention this year and during a prior effort to seek a seat on the School Board due to his youth.
He announced his 2020 School Board campaign in February, writing online, “Now more than ever, we need leaders who will hold themselves to a higher standard. To be respectful, honest, and decent. To understand that — their actions, just as their words — matter. Our leaders should always strive to be better and to do better.”
In June, The Independent News reported that his campaign nearly didn’t make the ballot this year due to a shortage of valid petition signatures.
Local officials found 119 of 125 needed names that met requirements as valid signatures. The Burns campaign had submitted 143 names in its nominating petitions.
Most of the names that were disqualified were because the voters could not be identified, according to an appeal filed by Burns on Monday, June 15, so local elections officials would reconsider allowing him to appear on the ballot.
The campaign provided more information about some signatures, officials said then, and the Virginia Beach Electoral Board on Friday, June 19, determined Burns had enough signatures to qualify for the general election ballot.
“I’m very grateful for all of the hard work and consideration that was put into this process to make this outcome positive,” Burns said during an interview with The Independent News immediately following the June 19 meeting.
“We worked really hard to get on the ballot,” Burns told The Independent News on Thursday, Sept 17. “We went through the appeal and did everything that we could, but in the end our strategy and our being able to reach the voters wasn’t working.”
Burns is a Bayside High School graduate who lives in the Kempsville area.
He said he might someday run for office again, likely after completing graduate school.
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