Newsoms mayor resigns as condition of lawsuit dismissal

Published 11:15 am Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Southampton County Judge Carl Eason Jr. on Tuesday agreed to dismiss one of the pending suits against the Town of Newsoms and acting mayor/vice mayor Harvey Porter on the condition that he resign. Porter, who assumed the role of acting mayor on Aug. 20, 2015, after mayor Kenneth Cooke resigned from his post, cannot run for an elected office for five years as part of the conditional agreement.

“[Porter’s council] approached us with a resolution that achieved all of the objectives that we sought,” said attorney Jack Randall of Randall-Page P.C. “This was our objective from the start — to get him to resign — so we accomplished what we wanted. The meat and potatoes are still to come [with the other suits].”

The lawsuit that was dismissed was brought on by six Newsoms residents who were requesting reinstatement of the town’s 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. They alleged 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.

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residents also claimed that a sum of approximately $22,000 was misappropriated by various town officials when they were withdrawn from a Certificate of Deposit held at BB&T without consent of town council.

Messages left with town attorney Tim Drewry regarding Porter’s resignation and the town’s now-vacant mayoral post were not reciprocated, though he said in November that he would no longer represent the town when the lawsuit arrived because the town’s insurance carrier would take over in defense.

Cooke, individually and in his capacity as a town representative; Porter, in his capacity as a town representative; and the Newsoms town council are still being sued by former Newsoms Police Chief Jeffrey McKenney in the amount of $1.329 million for defamation, three counts of tortuous interference with a contractual relationship and lost wages. McKenney, who is represented by Randall, 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 attempted to terminate McKenney in an unlawful closed meeting and constructively did so by disbanding the police department.

On Aug. 18, 2015, McKenney’s employment with the town was effectively terminated in a letter written by then-mayor Cooke. In said letter, Cooke insinuated that the police chief had falsified his time sheets and referenced concerns raised by the Southampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney regarding a 2012 grand jury indictment in which McKenney was charged with one felony county 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 the police chief a credible witness.

Cooke then gave McKenney the option of resigning with four weeks of severance pay to supplement his search for other employment or be relieved of his duties. The police chief was then terminated when he did not respond to the mayor’s request.

The lawsuit alleges that in the 60 days prior to his termination, McKenney received seven complaints that Cooke was consuming alcohol while operating a vehicle. McKinney confirmed to The Tidewater News that he confronted the mayor, who has no record of any alcohol-related incidents according to the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office, 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, Newsoms Town Council reinstated the police chief, which prompted Cooke to resign.

In the time leading up to Cooke’s resignation and McKenney’s reinstatement, the suit claims that the mayor became unwilling to communicate with the police chief regarding even the most basic administrative responsibilities; that Cooke, Porter and Lt. Jerry Studer — who became acting police chief in the two days in which McKenney was relieved of his duties — conspired to remove him from his post; that Cooke and Porter maliciously and falsely remarked that McKenney had stolen money at his last job and was convicted of a felony; and that he was fired by the Town of 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. This decision took place in a closed session, therefore violating the Code of Virginia.

Porter could not be reached on Tuesday despite numerous attempts to contact him at his home number. Messages were also left with town secretary Ruth Dunn, though town offices are not open for business until Wednesday.