Woman guilty in Staunton asbestos scare
STAUNTON — Why did a Staunton woman falsify a lab report in 2015 that indicated there was asbestos in the downtown building that houses the Staunton Circuit Court, forcing its closure and ultimately costing her former employer $116,000?
In court Thursday, Melissa S. Hart, 52, offered no answers but did plead guilty to felony charges of commercial fraud against the government, and forgery.
In July 2015, ceiling tiles on the third floor of the Cochran Judicial Center collapsed, prompting testing. A sample from the ceiling debris tested positive for asbestos, the city said at the time.
However, it was later learned that Hart, working for Hurt & Proffitt, Inc., a Lynchburg engineering firm, knew the tests came back negative, according to Daniel Welsh, a Staunton assistant prosecutor. Welsh said Hart took the initial lab report, which was in a PDF file, and converted it into a Word document, where she changed the language to indicate there was asbestos in the building.
However, Welsh noted that Hart was already aware of the asbestos level in the courthouse building because her ex-husband was involved in an asbestos-removal project in 1992, and Welsh said Hart also signed a document from that project in the late 90s indicating she knew the asbestos level.
«The Commonwealth’s evidence would further show that Mrs. Hart, as a then-certified asbestos instructor, had access to asbestos materials, and that in an effort to conceal her tracks planted a clump of asbestos material called ‘amosite,’ which she then sent off to the lab for analysis,» Welsh said in court.
The positive result indicated in Hart’s report prompted the city to cancel more than a dozen court cases and close the third-floor of the courthouse, and its circuit court office was relocated a floor below and temporarily situated inside a second-floor courtroom. An asbestos abatement process was then initiated, costing the city $116,845, a sum that was reimbursed by Hart & Proffitt.
It was the Lynchburg company that discovered Hart’s discrepancies and reported them to city administrators, Staunton police said.
Two months after Hart’s bogus report indicated asbestos in the building, a second firm hired by the city determined it was free of asbestos after more than 90 samples were tested.
With her guilty pleas, in a plea agreement with the Staunton prosecutor’s office, Hart was sentenced to three years in prison with all of it suspended, giving her no time to serve. She was also fined $5,000.
When asked for a motive, Welsh said, «It was not real clear.»
Hart is entering an unspecified 28-day treatment program on Monday, according to her attorney Thomas Weidner IV.