About-face in Delaware auditor’s trial: Prosecutors seek change of venue to Kent County

The judge had indicated that the state risked triggering double jeopardy if they tried the case in New Castle County.

Kathy McGuiness headshot

Delaware State Auditor Kathy McGuiness. (Office of Auditor)

Facing the possibility of the corruption trial of Delaware’s auditor blowing up, prosecutors have reversed course and are now seeking to move the case from New Castle County to Kent County.

The state plans to present the allegations against Kathy Mcguiness on Monday to a grand jury in Kent County, where the auditor has her main state office. Should they obtain an indictment, prosecutors also want to select a trial jury Monday and begin the trial the next day.

“The state believes this case can begin as soon as Tuesday [June 8] in Kent County,’’ prosecutor Mark Denney wrote in a letter to Superior Court Judge William C. Carpenter.

Carpenter didn’t commit to resuming the case as early as next week. Instead, he issued a statement Wednesday that said “if an indictment is returned” in Kent County, he “will confer with counsel in establishing a new date for trial.”

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Defense attorney Steven P. Wood had no comment on the state’s about-face, which came after he challenged the validity of prosecuting McGuiness upstate during a court hearing Tuesday.  But Wood also said in court that should the state seek to change the venue, he would attempt to have the revised indictment dismissed because of an “unnecessary delay” in bringing her to trial.

Prosecutors accuse McGuiness of breaking state laws by hiring her daughter and her daughter’s best friend to do-nothing jobs, giving a campaign consultant a no-bid contract, and intimidating employees who complained about her actions.

McGuiness, 55, is charged with theft, official misconduct, witness intimidation, and other offenses. If convicted of the felony and misdemeanor charges, she faces zero to 13 years in prison.

Fellow Democrats and party officials have called on McGuiness to resign, but she has remained in office and is running for re-election to a second four-year term in November. She currently has no primary opponent.

The state’s reversal came one day after opening arguments were scheduled to begin Tuesday in the state’s northern and most populous county.

But instead of letting the attorneys proceed, Judge Carpenter first considered a defense argument that the indictment was flawed and invalid because none of the alleged actions by McGuiness occurred in New Castle County. “Nothing happened here,’’ Wood told the judge.

Prosecutors had contended in court papers that the state could hold the trial upstate because the alleged victims — taxpayers — lived in all three counties. They also argued they could show McGuiness, who has an office in Wilmington and frequently attends events upstate, committed crimes there.

Carpenter said he had “concerns” he might have to acquit McGuiness if the state didn’t put on evidence that crimes had occurred upstate. That would trigger double jeopardy, a provision that prevents the government from prosecuting someone for the same crimes after being acquitted.

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The judge then halted Tuesday’s proceeding, and ordered the parties back into court Wednesday morning to hear what the prosecution wanted to do.

Denney, who heads the Division of Civil Rights and Public Trust for Attorney General Kathy Jennings, ultimately decided not to risk holding the trial in New Castle County.

In a letter to Carpenter, the judge wrote that the Kent County Grand Jury meets Monday at the courthouse in Dover and that a jury pool for trials of more than 100 people is also convening there that same day.

“The state will be prepared to present this case to the Kent County Grand Jury on Monday morning, and we respectfully suggest that a jury be selected the same day,’’ he wrote. “Neither the charges nor the witnesses would change.”

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