Flanked by character witnesses, James Halfaday briefly addresses reporters after his July 5 sentencing.
Halfaday's stories began unraveling last September when the true owners of the Snap Fitness gym came forward.
file photo by Lisa Provence
Four months after pleading guilty to a single count of election fraud following a campaign that crossed the line from zany to criminal, one-time City Council candidate James Halfaday was sentenced to serve 60 days in jail.
"This is a criminal offense that affects every citizen in the City of Charlottesville," Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Claude Worrell told Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Edward Hogshire, before spending a considerable amount of time recounting Halfaday's questionable election season behavior that went well beyond the only action resulting in conviction: lying about his residence.
Indeed, Halfaday's campaign could have made riveting fodder for a prime time TV series as the city's first openly gay candidate claimed he was being targeted by homophobes. He also accused a married female campaign volunteer of sexual harassment by text (a charge which was later dropped when Halfaday couldn't produce more than a single blank text message). Later, he claimed injury in what would have made him the lone local casualty of the August 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered in Mineral, when he alleged that a falling piece of ceiling hit him in the head (and posted a photo of himself on Facebook wearing a neck brace).
The strange stories and inconsistencies just kept coming as he falsely claimed to own the Snap Fitness 24-hour gym on 29 North and listed numerous campaign donors on his campaign registration paperwork. The real Snap Fitness owners came forward, and several alleged donors asserted they hadn't given him a dime.
In the end, however, questionable as those claims may have been, it was Halfaday's Albemarle County residence that's putting him in jail. As previously reported, Halfaday did at one time live in the city but had moved into a county apartment in 2011. The move rendered him ineligible to run for elected office in the city, but Halfaday persisted in his campaign and allegedly lied on his paperwork, listing a city address.
While Worrell read from a letter by Halfaday's therapist claiming that fraud was not premeditated and that the misrepresentation resulted merely from a "desire for acceptance" by a man who suffered physical and emotional abuse as a child, Worrell didn't buy it.
"It absolutely was premeditated," Worrell told the judge, suggesting that while the maximum allowable sentence of 10 years for election fraud might be excessive, a prison term of 18 months to two years would be appropriate.
"He stays in the race all the way to the end," Worrell said, "knowing that he's lying."
In what seemed to be an emotional tangent during the hearing, Worrell criticized media for showing up to cover Halfaday's sentencing in greater numbers than the sentencing of Barry Bowles, the man convicted of second degree murder in January in the death of his wife, Rachel Bowles, and sentenced to 15 years.
Halfaday's attorney, Scott Goodman, objected to Worrell's focus on media coverage and disputed the prosecutor's assessment of an appropriate punishment, suggesting that for a man who wanted to win elected office, becoming a felon– losing the right to vote and the possibility of ever achieving his political dreams– was significant punishment. Furthermore, Goodman pointed out, there are many elected seats in Virginia for which residency is not required.
"It's ridiculous to assert that this was an attempt to corrupt the system," said Goodman.
During the hearing, Halfaday, dressed sharply in a charcoal suit, white shirt, and crimson tie, remained alert, nodding and smiling slightly when each of three character witnesses took the stand on his behalf to describe his kindness and generosity.
"He helped me create a resume and look for a job," said Debra Walker, who met Halfaday when he volunteered at a "re-entry summit" for released convicts. An elderly woman described Halfadays' quick response when he came upon her having a seizure and went beyond calling 911 for the stranger, staying overnight with her in the hospital and making sure she'd gotten home safely the next day. And the manager of a thoroughbred horse farm described how Halfaday was always helpful.
"He loved being around horses, riding tractors, and cutting grass," said Bill Reeves, stressing that Halfaday had never asked for or received payment. "He's just a good person," Reeves said.
Prior to his sentencing, Halfaday spoke on his own behalf.
"I am regretfully sorry that I am here in this position," said Halfaday, asking Hogshire to spare him jail time and stressing that he never took money from any elderly individuals to throw a campaign party– something of which Worrell had accused him.
Hogshire, however, seemed unswayed.
"This is bigger to me than embezzling," said Hogshire, pointing out the endorsements Halfaday elicited from well-known locals including former Charlottesville Sheriff Cornelia Johnson and City Councilor Julian Taliaferro.
"You betrayed some people," Hogshire told him, before handing down the sentence. In addition to the prison time– five years with all but 60 days suspended– Halfaday must serve 40 hours of community service. In addition, he received 18 months supervised probation followed by 10 years "good behavior." He reports to jail on July 27.
Following the hearing, Worrell declined comment.
Goodman, however, said his client "realizes the judge was merciful" and added that the timing of the sentencing during the lead-up to an election makes sense as a deterrent for anyone else considering election highjinks.
"It's a message courts send from time to time," Goodman said.
Correction: Barry Bowles was sentenced to 15 years in the 2010 stabbing death of his wife, Rachel Bowles. Also clarified five-year sentence for Halfaday with all but 60 days suspended.–ed