BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE — A special prosecutor on Wednesday, Nov. 4, accused Mayor Will Sessoms of five misdemeanor charges under the state’s conflict of interest act because of votes he cast that involved borrowers from TowneBank, where he then served as an executive.
The charges, dealing with votes between 2011 and 2014, come nearly a year after The Virginian-Pilot’s John Holland detailed votes involving projects connected to the bank.
Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Doucette, the special prosecutor in the matter, announced the charges shortly before the statute of limitations closed. During a press conference on Thursday, Nov. 5, outside Virginia Beach Circuit Court, he said the charges were about transparency in public business.
[Michael Doucette and John Doucette, editor of The Independent News, are not related.]
In an email to reporters, Michael Doucette wrote that state police Special Agent Robert Cully on Wednesday obtained five criminal summonses against Sessom, each alleging a violation of the state conflict of interest act. The charges are class three misdemeanors, which means Sessoms might face a maximum fine of $500 per count or $2,500 sum total.
On Thursday, the special prosecutor said Cully would deliver the summonses to Sessoms, who would agree to appear in General District Court here on Dec. 7, though that date likely would change.
Sessoms would not have to resign from office if convicted, he said.
Sessoms is charged in relation to votes he cast in matters involving three organizations that did business with TowneBank while Sessoms served as president there. The votes dealt with Emmanuel Episcopal Church, the 25th Street Project and Madison Landing LLC, according to Doucette. Sessoms violated the act by “failing to make necessary public disclosures before voting on these projects,” Doucette wrote.
Doucette told reporters that it did not matter whether the votes were made on individual items or on matters voted upon as part of a consent agenda. For consent agenda items, he said, “any one of those items” can be removed or an offical might abstain from that item. Also, an offical could make declarations before voting.
The Pilot’s article detailed a number of other votes by Sessoms, though Doucette said not all were considered during the investigation associated with his role as special prosecutor.
“There were a number of allegations in The Pilot article that were more than five years old,” Doucette said, meaning they were outside the statute of limitations. Other instances raised by The Pilot’s report did not have probable cause to seek charges, he added.
The process now underway was about government business being conducted with transparency, Doucette said.
“The public has to have confidence in what its public officials are doing,” he said.
Sessoms did not return messages on Thursday. According to The Pilot, Sessoms last year told the newspaper he “didn’t knowingly vote on any issue related to the bank.”
Sessoms told reporters in Norfolk much the same today, according to The Pilot. In a statement released to the media, he said he had received the summonses.
“I have never participated in any vote with the intention of benefiting myself personally or my former employer,” Sessoms said in the statement. “My loyalty has always been to the city of Virginia Beach and our citizens. I have never intentionally violated the conflict of interest act or any other law or ordinance. I intend to address these charges and each and every allegation in the coming days and weeks.”
Due to the criminal prosecution and the advise of counsel, the statement concluded, “I will not make any further comment and certainly do not intend to try this case in the press.”
Holland, who broke the story about Sessoms this past year, was named Virginia’s outstanding journalist by the Virginia Press Association in April.
This spring, Holland discussed his work as a guest during a Virginia Wesleyan College media writing class taught by John Doucette.
“We’re not prosecutors,” Holland told the students in March. “Our job is not to get anybody arrested. Our job is to point out what looks bad for the public.”
Holland is no longer at The Pilot.