Saying their multi-year, well-documented harassment of a local farmer does not mean they “should have to be dragged through protracted, expensive litigation to battle a neighbor,” a powerful Virginia husband-and-wife real estate team has put forward a novel argument in their defense: We should not be held liable for the pain and financial loss we inflicted on our neighbor; she should suck it up because our acts were a mere “irritation and distraction.”
The bizarre argument made by Phil and Patricia Thomas in a brief submitted to the Fauquier County Circuit Court is the latest twist involving the real estate duo and farmer Martha Boneta. In a conflict that has garnered national attention, Boneta is suing the Thomases for conspiring with the well-heeled Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) for engaging a decade of abuse and harassment. The realtors and the PEC, a tax subsidized 501(c)(3) nonprofit, even entered into a secretive Confidential Agreement to act in concert regarding the Boneta family farm.
Boneta’s 64-acre farm is located on the edge of the Shenandoah Valley in Fauquier County, about 55 miles west of Washington, D.C. When she purchased the property from the PEC in July 2006, the farm was in a terrible state of disrepair, with a tree growing in the collapsing barn and trash strewn everywhere. Determined to realize her childhood dream of being a farmer, Boneta spent considerable time and money rehabilitating the property, transforming it into a beautiful working farm that it is today.
But by turning a godforsaken dump into a working farm, Boneta attracted the attention and envy of those who coveted her now valuable land and, as subsequent events would show, were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to drive her off her property. According to a suit Boneta brought against the couple, the Thomases, often colluding with the PEC and Fauquier County officials, orchestrated many of those efforts.
Long List of Transgressions
Documents uncovered through citizens, discovery and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and brought to light by investigative journalist Kevin Mooney in The Daily Signal, reveal a pattern of relentless harassment on the part of the defendants. Among the transgressions covered in Boneta’s suit are:
- Over nearly a decade, countless letters from Phil and Patricia Thomas were sent to the local sheriff’s department, Commonwealth’s attorneys, zoning administrators, Virginia Department of Transportation, and animal control wardens – all demanding that these taxpayer-funded officials take action against Boneta.
- Patricia Thomas, an attorney, realtor and member of the Virginia Bar, used her law firm’s letterhead on many of these communications.
- In one 24-hour period, Patricia Thomas called all of Boneta’s neighbors and followed up the calls by drafting letters for them to send to county officials to make complaints about the farmer.
- Aside from growing crops and engaging in other agricultural endeavors, Boneta uses her property as an animal rescue farm, providing a home for approximately 180 animals, including llamas, alpacas, emus, goats, sheep, ducks, and chickens. The Thomases claimed that Boneta was mistreating the animals and demanded county officials seize the creatures. They even sent a picture of an abused horse to the county to underscore their claim. However, the photo they sent was of an abused horse in Australia; the pic had apparently been pulled off the Internet. A county animal control officer inspected Boneta’s farm and found that her animals were in good health and well fed.
- Peter Schwartz, an attorney and real estate developer, a member of the PEC Board of Directors, and an elected member of the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors, conspired in written communications with the Thomases on how to force Boneta’s mortgage in to foreclosure on her farm. Schwartz had legal and ethical reasons to recuse himself because he drafted the conservation easement that the PEC and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state agency, jointly hold on Boneta’s farm.
- In 2012, Schwartz publicly disclosed that Boneta was the subject of an IRS audit. He disclosed this information before she and her family had been served with the audit. As it happens, Peggy Richardson, who was IRS commissioner under President Clinton, also sits on the PEC Board of Directors and also is Schwartz’s neighbor and close friend. Richardson maintains that this is a coincidence, but the audit coincided with Boneta high-profile resistance to the actions of Fauquier County, Phil and Patricia Thomas, and the PEC.
- Documents show that Schwartz provided Phil Thomas with his personal physical address so that the latter could send him “a package of Boneta materials” in what the suit alleges was an effort to shield Boneta’s personal and financial documents from FOIA requests.
- Patricia Thomas sent numerous communications, again on her law firm’s letterhead, to Boneta’s mortgage company, urging the bank to foreclose on the Boneta farm. Patricia Thomas even requested to purchase Boneta’s note from the bank. These written communications were followed up by phone calls, but the bank refused to comply. This resulted in a series of angry communications from the Thomases, who demanded to speak to the bank’s Board of Directors. The bank refused. Some of these communications can be found here.
- A paper trail reveals the Thomases directed their personal secretary, Rhonda Sherwood, who lives in one of the Thomas tenant houses, to sign an affidavit that Patricia Thomas also authored, about Boneta that was the basis for the county shutting down Boneta’s farm in 2012 when she was in full harvest. Recently, another Thomas tenant and employee also made a complaint regarding the farmer.
The list of transgressions against Boneta is endless, causing countless hours of time away from farming, lost business, hardship and duress. One is struck by the brazen attempt by the well-connected and well-to-do to use their outsized local influence to crush a local farmer. To the land barons, it was time for the farmer to go – by whatever means necessary. Phil Thomas had owned what is now Boneta’s farm before selling it to the PEC in 2000 and he now appears to have seller’s remorse. Patricia Thomas was willing to use her law firm’s letterhead in going after Boneta, even if this brought her in conflict with numerous sections of the Virginia State Bar and the Virginia Board of Realtors.
To the defendants, Martha Boneta’s defense of her rights, to stop being, injured, terrorized and to protect her family farm is a sign of her “irritation and distraction.” The Thomases are afraid to be “dragged through protracted and expensive litigation,” but this is exactly what Martha Boneta has had to endure for nearly a decade.. How dare the rubes stand up to landed gentry! Small wonder that Boneta has been awarded one of America’s most Amazing Women for her struggle that is the subject of an award-winning documentary, “Farming in Fear.”
The case will be heard January 19 before Fauquier Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey W. Parker, many of whose decisions have been overturned by higher courts. If Judge Parker rules against Boneta, it is certain she will appeal and prevail given the magnitude of evidence that continues to surface. This is far from over.