Hearing set for Newsoms lawsuit

Published 4:46 pm Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Suffolk Circuit Court will hold a hearing at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 22, with regard to a lawsuit pending against the Town of Newsoms. Former Newsoms Police Chief Jeffrey McKenney is suing the Town in the amount of $1.329 million for defamation, three counts of tortuous interference with a contractual relationship and lost wages.

He alleges 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 those of former mayor Kenneth Cooke and former vice mayor Harvey Porter, and that they, in their official capacity, interfered with his contractual relationship with the Town, resulting in his termination and financial detriment.

On Aug. 18, 2015, McKenney’s employment with the Town of Newsoms 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 count of obtaining money while he was employed by the Dinwiddie County Sheriff’s Office. That charge was ultimately dismissed, but commonwealth’s attorney Eric Cooke told the former mayor that he would no longer consider the police chief a credible witness.

The letter 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 as police chief. He was then terminated when he did not respond to Cooke’s request.

The lawsuit alleges that in the 60 days prior to his termination, McKenney received seven complaints from town residents that Cooke was consuming alcohol while operating a motor vehicle. McKenney told The Tidewater News in September that he then confronted the former mayor about his alleged drinking and driving habits.

When McKenney’s attorney, Jack Randall of Randall-Page P.C., stated at an emergency called meeting of the Newsoms Town Council that the mayor had no authority to fire his client, the board reinstated the police chief, which prompted Cooke to resign.

In the months 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 for falsifying his time sheets.

On Sept. 15, 2015, town council unanimously decided to dissolve the police department effective Oct. 8, 2015; place McKenney on paid administrative leave until the aforementioned date; and accept Cooke’s resignation. This decision allegedly took place in a closed session, and therefore violates the Code of Virginia, Section 2.2-3711.

Pender and Coward P.C., which represents the Town of Newsoms, et al., have filed a pleas in bar — or demurrer of evidence — to ask the court to issue an order dismissing all claims against the Town with prejudice. They assert that the Town is protected by an umbrella of sovereign immunity that allows high-level government officials to exercise a power delegated to them when directly tied to the health, safety and welfare of its citizens. Pender and Coward also states that McKenney’s claims of tortuous interference with a contractual relationship are “defective on its face” because he did not provide the time or place where any of the alleged “injuries” occurred.

“The pleas speak for themselves, so I don’t want to make a comment on them,” said Pender and Coward attorney Jeffrey Wilson.

Randall, meanwhile, also represents six town residents who filed a separate lawsuit against the Town 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, including Cooke and Porter, 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.

That suit was dismissed on May 24 after a demurrer of evidence was filed by town attorney Tim Drewry.

“In their original petition, one of the things they didn’t do was get an affidavit stating that their rights and privileges had been denied, which is required by [Virginia] code,” Drewry said.

However, the case will be heard again on a date to be determined because the plaintiffs were allowed to file an amended petition and affidavit for injunction within 21 days of the judge’s ruling under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

“Additional causes of a action have arisen since, and the [Town’s] conduct has continued to be egregious and outrageous,” Randall said. “There will be a lot of comment at the hearing, and a lot of things will be unearthed at that time.”

In said affidavit, the mother of town councilman Joseph Steward, Caroline Steward, states under oath that the discussion of and the decision to dissolve the Newsoms Police Department occurred during a closed town council meeting

“I was present at the town meeting when the Newsoms Town Council went into closed session,” she said. “Immediately after coming back into public session, the Newsoms Town Council voted to dissolve the Newsoms Police Department.”