Former Newsoms police chief files $1.32M lawsuit

Published 11:14 am Saturday, November 14, 2015

Former Newsoms Police Chief Jeffrey McKenney filed a lawsuit in the Southampton County Circuit Court on Thursday afternoon. He is suing former Mayor Kenneth Cooke, Vice Mayor Harvey Porter and the Town of Newsoms in the amount of $1.329 million for defamation, three counts of tortuous interference with a contractual relationship and lost wages. The suit names both Cooke and Porter individually and in their capacity as town representatives.

McKenney, represented by Jack T. Randall of Randall-Page, P.C., claims that his reputation and status as a law enforcement officer and member of the community in which he served were slandered by the acts of the town, specifically its mayor and vice mayor, and that they, in their official capacity, interfered with his contractual relationship with the town, resulting in his termination and financial detriment. Cooke and Porter allegedly attempted to terminate McKenney in an unlawful closed meeting and constructively did so by disbanding the police department.

“Our client has two children, a wife,” Randall said. “We forget about the personal nature of what corruption and power can do to destroy someone. It can break them down to their core foundation and just drive them out of a job. When you lose a job, next thing you know there’s foreclosure on your house. Then after foreclosure on your house, you’ve got a divorce. Things spiral downward. My client is dealing with the trauma of how he was treated by the community.”

Randall continued, “Our expectation is that he needs to be paid from the insurance policy, from the taxpayers. Ultimately, the taxpayers put the incompetent people in and now only a few of the taxpayers are acting because it’s gotten to be such a cluster … He needs to be compensated in some way because he has been absolutely ruined by this council. His reputation has been ruined, and he’s never going to work in law enforcement again because of this.”

On Aug. 18, McKenney’s employment with the town was effectively terminated in a letter written by then-mayor Cooke. In said letter, Cooke insinuated that police chief had falsified his time sheets and referenced concerns raised by Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke regarding a 2012 grand jury indictment in which McKenney was charged with one felony count of obtaining money under false pretenses while employed by the Dinwiddie Sheriff’s Department. That charge was ultimately dismissed, but the Commonwealth’s Attorney told the former mayor that he would no longer consider McKenney a credible witness.

Mayor Cooke then gave McKenney the option resigning with four weeks of severance pay to supplement his search for other employment or be relieved of his duties as chief of police. McKenney was then terminated when he did not respond to the mayor’s request, and Lt. Jerry Studer was appointed interim chief.

The lawsuit alleges that in the 60 days prior to his termination McKenney received seven complaints that Mayor Cooke was consuming alcohol while operating a vehicle. McKenney, in the presence of town secretary Ruth Dunn, Porter and Studer, asked Cooke to cease his drinking and driving.

McKenney confirmed to The Tidewater News that he confronted the mayor, who has no record of any alcohol-related incidents, about his alleged drinking and driving habits.

When Randall stated at an emergency called meeting on Aug. 20 that the mayor had no authority to fire his client, town council reinstated the police chief. This apparently prompted Cooke to resign from his post as mayor.

In the time leading up to the mayor’s resignation and police chief’s reinstatement, the suit claims that Mayor Cooke became unwilling to communicate with McKenney regarding even the most basic administrative responsibilities; that Cooke, Porter and Studer — without authority or knowledge to the remainder of the council — conspired to remove him from his post; that Cooke and Porter maliciously and falsely remarked that McKenney had stolen money at his last job, was convicted of a felony; and that he was fired by Newsoms for falsifying hours worked.

On Sept. 15, town council unanimously decided to dissolve the police department effective Oct. 8, place McKenney on paid administrative leave until the aforementioned date and accept Cooke’s resignation. The suit alleges that the disbandment of the police department is a matter of public concern and discussion of it in closed session violates the Code of Virginia.

“I’ve dealt with government corruption, and it’s sad,” Randall said. “We can’t talk about fairness on the left hand and then not talk about fairness on the right. We can’t pick and choose about what’s fair and what’s just. But when someone gets power, you never know how they’re going act. Power can corrupt a man. Obviously, there was power that turned to corruption, and the corruption spiraled out of control. I think people have seen it, but they just don’t know how to act. This case has just come together perfectly.”

Six Newsoms residents have also made separate and individual complaints against the town requesting reinstatement of the police department, a permanent injunction prohibiting town council from acting on any matters in a closed meeting and the appointment of a special commissioner to observe town council meetings and audit town accounts.

Phillip Charles, Kathy Darden, Doug Prince, John Smith Jr., Sarah Smith and Caroline Steward together allege that the town, as well as Cooke and Porter individually, engaged in negligent, grossly negligent, wanton, intentional and/or criminal acts and/or accepted negligent or grossly negligent legal advice contrary to the town’s best interest. It is said that the mayor, vice mayor and town’s actions placed the resident’s individual and collective safety in limbo and continuously and irreparably damaged the town.

“They’re just tired,” Randall said of his clients. “It’s not about money. It’s about cleaning up their beautiful town. They want the corruption swept out of the town of Newsoms and to start fresh. That’s all they want. They believe that what the town did to McKenney is morally wrong. We need to break it down, wipe it clean and start a new police department.”

“They’re just frustrated,” he continued. “They go to these meetings, and they don’t even know when they are. They have to hear word on the street or somebody is coming into [town hall] and they start showing up. For several of them, we’ve gotten calls that say, ‘Hey. We’re having a meeting tonight. Y’all need to come down.’ Now is that how a public organization is supposed to work? There’s laws on this.”

While citing the same facts laid out in McKenney’s lawsuit, the residents note that there are currently no bylaws which govern the actions of the town council and therefore the council is governed by the Code of Virginia.

They also claim that a sum of approximately $22,000 were misappropriated by various town officials when they were withdrawn from a Certificate of Deposit held at BB&T without the consent of council.

“We’re looking for justice,” Randall said. “Our client, chief, and our clients, citizens, just want a simple justice. They feel as if this has been going on for so long, that they’re frustrated. They’re hurt. They want their old town back. They don’t know what it’s become. Why are they not getting notice of their meetings. Why are they waiting in the dark for four hours. Why can’t people even speak? Why is the government dictating to them what they’re going to do instead of the opposite where the public gets to speak to the government?

“This has been building for years. I think we’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg of what has occurred in this case,” Randall added.

“We went into this knowing that — once we actually get into it and we have people under oath testifying — a lot more than what we’ve even uncovered at this point is going to come to the surface,” said Randall’s co-counsel, Daniel Vinson. “We’re going to flush out the corruption.”

Vice Mayor Porter had no comment regarding the lawsuit, while former mayor Cooke could not be reached despite numerous attempts to contact him at his home number. Town attorney Tim Drewry, meanwhile, said that he had not yet been served and would no longer represent the Town of Newsoms when the lawsuit arrived because the town’s insurance carrier would take over in defense.