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Lucas fallout continues

Email shows Portsmouth councilman asked police to charge protesters

More than a month before Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene announced felony charges against state Sen. L. Louise Lucas and 18 others present during a June 10 protest at the city’s Confederate monument — now collectively being referred to as the “Portsmouth 19” — at least one Portsmouth City Council member had emailed the chief and specifically asked her to bring charges against the protesters.

The existence of an email from Portsmouth Councilman Bill Moody to Chief Greene and other city officials dated July 14 was first reported in the Sept. 11 Daily Press. The Smithfield Times obtained its own copy on Sept. 14. Portsmouth Councilwoman Elizabeth Psimas is reported to have sent an email agreeing with Moody, but the paper has yet to obtain a copy of her email.

In Moody’s email, the councilman specifically recommends Greene use the “injuring” monuments charge under state code 18.2-137, which becomes a Class 6 felony if the value of the monument is $1,000 or more. Chief Greene did, in fact, cite this charge and one felony count of conspiracy when announcing in an Aug. 17 press conference that her department had obtained warrants for the senator’s arrest.

“Persons who decided to ignore the posted no trespassing sign … commenced to cause damage to our historic memorial that was erected to honor those from Portsmouth and surrounding cities and counties that lost their lives during the civil war,” Moody writes. “I am requesting that the law be enforced.”

Lucas, whose 18th District includes parts of Franklin, Suffolk, and the counties of Isle of Wight, Southampton and Surry, was caught on camera the day of the protest saying to Portsmouth Police officers, “They’re going to put some paint on this thing and y’all cannot arrest them,” but the senator denies having outright told protesters to do anything illegal.

While Moody doesn’t specifically mention Lucas in his email, he does ask that charges be brought against another subsequently charged member of the Portsmouth 19 — Public Defender Brenda Spry.

“I am attaching a video of one, Ms. Brenda Spry … The video shows her in the act of committing vandalism on our monument,” Moody states. “Unless there are 4 colleagues who are opposed or some legal reason not to proceed I am requesting that charges be brought against Ms. Spry for her actions on the night of June 10, 2020. Since Ms. Spry works in our Commonwealth Attorney’s office, I suggest filing charges in another jurisdiction.”

All charges were, in fact, still filed in Portsmouth, but the Police Department chose to go around the city’s top prosecutor, Stephanie Morales, when securing arrest warrants for Lucas and other protesters — opting instead to send Sgt. Kevin McGee to appear before Portsmouth Magistrate Mandy Owens. The department claims this was done because the commonwealth’s attorney could be called as a witness, though Morales denies ever being on site the day of the protest to witness anything.

Lucas’ daughter, Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke, was served two misdemeanor summons on Aug. 24 for allegedly violating City Code 3.11, which prohibits Council members from directing or requesting that anyone be appointed or removed from a position that reports to the city manager, or giving orders publicly or privately to any subordinate of the city manager.

Per state law, conviction doesn’t carry the possibility of jail time, just a fine of up to $500. But Portsmouth’s City Code adds the additional penalty of the council member having to forfeit his or her office.

Lucas-Burke’s charges stem from her calling for Chief Greene’s firing on Aug. 19 after describing the charges against her mother as a “bogus witch hunt.” The exact words she posted to Facebook that day were, “I think she [Greene] has clearly lost the confidence of this Council and the City and should be terminated.”

Portsmouth resident Thomas DuBois had entered the city magistrate’s office with an entourage of supporters on Aug. 23 to press charges against Lucas-Burke. Owens signed off on the charges against Lucas-Burke, as she had the vice mayor’s mother, but according to The Virginian Pilot, recused her office on Sept. 11 when members of the Portsmouth 19 — among them Portsmouth NAACP President James Boyd and Vice President Louie Gibbs — tried to file misdemeanor charges against Moody and Psimas under the same code section.

As a result, their case was heard by Virginia Beach Chief Magistrate Michael Poulson, who reportedly told Boyd and Gibbs he would not allow charges to be filed because he didn’t believe there was enough evidence in the emails from Moody and Psimas.

Moody declined to comment further on the matter, but Psimas, when contacted, told the paper she was pleased that the magistrate “saw through the absurd” accusations Boyd and Gibbs had made concerning Moody’s email.

“In my tenure on Council, which has been since 2004, I have probably seen hundreds of similar emails from Council members to the city manager, that are then copied to a department head,” Psimas said.

Lucas-Burke, however, called the magistrate’s decision evidence of a “double standard” given that she is currently the only one facing charges.

“What I had expressed was my opinion … Is mine valid?” she asked.

 

Portsmouth city manager resigns, city attorney fired

Portsmouth’s City Council voted 4-3 on Sept. 8 during a special called meeting to accept the resignation of City Manager Dr. L. Pettis Patton, whom Lucas and her daughter claim assured them protesters would not be arrested. The vote was split along racial lines, with the city’s three white council members, among them Moody and Psimas, voting in favor of accepting Patton’s resignation and three Black council members, among them Lucas-Burke, opposed. Mayor John Rowe, who is also white, cast the tie-breaker in favor of Patton leaving her position.

The council then voted 4-3, with the same members voting aye and nay, to fire City Attorney Solomon Ashby Jr. Psimas, however, denies either departure having anything to do with Patton having placed Chief Greene on paid administrative leave four days prior to the city manager’s resignation.

“We had totally lost confidence in those two leadership positions in the last month or so,” Psimas said.

According to the councilwoman, this lack of confidence culminated with members of Council recently learning of a 2019 FBI investigation into allegations of racism within the city’s Police Department by virtue of Council members being copied on a list of questions from a Virginian-Pilot reporter.

“After a few days the mayor actually sent a message back to the manager and city attorney asking where were the answers,” Psimas said. “It took a while, but we finally, over the course of the next 24 hours, got three different emails. In those answers, we read things that, I can’t speak for everybody, but most of us had never heard of before, up to and including the hiring of some pretty high-profile law firms, things we should have known about.”

In addition to her comments to The Smithfield Times, Psimas had told 13 News Now that had Patton not resigned, her fellow Council members had been planning to fire her, too.

Lucas-Burke, however, disputes Psimas’ assertion that she and her fellow Council members learned of the FBI investigation and hiring of outside counsel just this year. The vice mayor recalls being copied on an email to all Council members regarding the investigation last year, though she didn’t have a copy and couldn’t recall if it had come from Patton’s or Ashby’s office.

The FBI investigation, as multiple media outlets reported last year, began when Chief Greene’s immediate predecessor, Tonya Chapman, claimed Patton had forced her to resign. In her March 25, 2019, resignation letter, which she addressed to the citizens of Portsmouth, the former chief said that when a former Portsmouth officer was convicted for shooting a young black male, “internal strife to include racial tensions within the police department became blatantly apparent.”

“Having been a member of two other law enforcement agencies, I have never witnessed the degree of bias and acts of systemic racism, discriminatory practices and abuse of authority in all of my almost 30 year career in law enforcement and public safety,” Chapman writes. “In this endeavor to change the culture, which was not easy, I was often met with continued resistance from some members of the Portsmouth Police Department … I can assure you that I did not ‘quit’ on the citizens of Portsmouth … This was a forced resignation and our City Manager was the conduit.”

Chapman, who joined Portsmouth’s Police Department in 2016, made history that year by becoming Virginia’s first-ever Black woman to serve as a municipal chief of police.

 

Ousted city manager claimed police had ‘conflict’

On Aug. 19, two days after Greene announced the charges against Lucas and other protest-goers, Patton claimed in an email to City Council members that the chief allegedly admitted to having a  conflict of interest in investigating incidents resulting from the protest — one of which occurred when protesters beheaded four Confederate soldier figures attached to the monument and pulled one down, causing it to fall on a man.

Patton’s email hadn’t specified what Greene’s alleged conflict was but claimed Ashby was also aware of it. The newspaper later learned that the day after the protest, a Portsmouth Police officer had told City Council members via email that, in his opinion, Lucas should “start by looking in the mirror” when assigning blame for what happened.”

That was on June 11, the same day Lucas, in a TV interview, blamed Greene for not intervening before the statue fell, and had called for the chief’s immediate firing. More than two months later, that same officer — Sgt. McGee — was the one Greene tasked with securing warrants against the senator and others.

The Smithfield Times obtained a copy of McGee’s email via a Freedom of Information Act request. Greene made no mention of this letter on Aug. 20 when she denied Patton’s conflict of interest claims. While she had acknowledged a “potential conflict” that could arise if Portsmouth Police were placed in the position of investigating elected city officials present during the protest, Greene concluded that, “During our investigation, it was determined that although felonious acts were committed by several individuals, no conflicts of interest for this department were revealed.”

The paper then learned of text messages between the chief and Morales indicating McGee’s email had, in fact, triggered an internal investigation into the sergeant’s conduct.

WAVY-TV 10 was the first to report the existence of the thread of texts. The Smithfield Times obtained its own copies via another FOIA request last week.

“For anyone to attempt to place blame on Chief Greene or the men and women of the Portsmouth Police Department to continue to try to use us as pawns on their political agenda is absolutely disgusting and offensive,” McGee had written of Lucas on June 11. “The blame for the events of June 10th rest squarely on the shoulders of several elected and appointed officials. Not on us.”

McGee had then characterized Lucas’ remarks as giving protesters “the green light” to do what they wanted, and had claimed several protesters had told him the day of the protest that Morales had said they would not be prosecuted.

On June 15 Morales sent a text message to Greene stating that McGee’s statements about her and her office’s stance on prosecution were “incorrect and unprofessional at best.”

“Sgt. McGee has sent a letter to council that is now circulating social media where he gives his account from the scene … I truly want to stay completely out of any drama but he is speaking out and giving wrong information and being inflammatory saying I should have somehow appeared at the scene to stop people when I was never there,” Morales wrote to Greene.

Chief Greene then counters, “The defense attorneys on scene told the officers that you advised the defense attorneys you would not prosecute for trespassing. McGee was one of those officers.”

Morales then replies she had advised attorney Elliott Moody that she planned to hold off prosecuting anyone for trespassing given that some protesters had claimed they had received permission from Greene to cover the monument the night of June 9, but “should people continue the action after the fact, the same would not be true.”