Lucas fallout continues

Published 4:48 pm Tuesday, September 8, 2020

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City manager resigns, city attorney fired


Portsmouth’s City Council voted 4-3 on Tuesday during a special called meeting to accept the resignation of City Manager Dr. L. Pettis Patton, and to fire City Attorney Solomon Ashby Jr.

City officials have yet to confirm whether either departure is connected to Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene’s pursuit of felony charges against state Sen. L. Louise Lucas.

The senator, whose 18th District includes parts of Franklin, Suffolk and the counties of Isle of Wight, Southampton and Surry, is charged with “conspiracy” and “injuring” the city’s Confederate monument during a June 10 protest. Lucas had been caught on camera the day of the protest saying to Portsmouth Police officers, “They’re going to put some paint and y’all cannot arrest them … call Dr. Patton,” but the senator denies having outright told protesters to do anything illegal.

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. On Sept. 4, four days prior to her own resignation, Patton had relieved Greene of her duties and placed the chief on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

Patton’s email didn’t specify 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. Kevin McGee — was the one Greene tasked with appearing before a magistrate to secure warrants against the senator and other protest-goers.

The Tidewater News 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.”

Now, text messages between the chief and Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales indicate 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 between Greene and Morales. The Tidewater News issued its own FOIA request to Morales’ office last week and obtained copies on Tuesday.

“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.

“I do not know for sure if the Commonwealth Attorney told the protestors she would not prosecute them or not, but I have a pretty good idea,” McGee writes. “I also have a pretty good idea of what would happen had one police officer used force to attempt to stop the protestors and what reaction some of the elected officials including the Commonwealth Attorney would have been if we had attempted to intervene … Over the last two weeks a number of police officers across the nation, not involved with the murder of George Floyd, have been suspended, fired, and charged with crimes without due process and without investigations simply for doing their jobs when they have been thrust into volatile situations not of their making … The only thing I was actually afraid of was persecution and prosecution for doing my job.”

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.”

“So if he was confused he should have talked to you, so you could ask me … We have enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect for some time, but just like if a member my office publically (sic) disparaged you, I would take responsibility,” Morales said. “I’m asking you to do the same and hold these officers to a higher standard than to spout off misleading information publicly.”

Later on in the same thread, Greene tells Morales of the internal investigation into McGee, stating, “I’ve sent the letter to our professional standards unit to start an investigation.”

The Tidewater News reached out by phone and email to Victoria Varnedoe, a spokeswoman for the Portsmouth Police Department, multiple times last week. The paper had intended to ask what role McGee’s assertions regarding Morales had played in the department’s decision to seek warrants via Portsmouth Magistrate Mandy Owens rather than providing Morales’ office with complete investigative results. Varnedoe acknowledged having received the questions but did not provide answers by press time.

Greene indicated in her Aug. 20 statement that the decision to go around Morales’ office in securing warrants was because the department had reason to believe the commonwealth’s attorney could be called as a witness. Morales, however, has denied ever being on site the day of the protest to witness anything.

WAVY-TV reports that following Chief Greene’s being placed on administrative leave, a group of 200-250 supporters organized a “Support Chief Greene” rally Sunday afternoon.

Patton’s office did not respond to a request for comments on her resignation by press time.

Deputy City Manager LaVoris Pace will fill in for Patton on an interim basis.

Assistant City Attorney Burle Stromberg will fill in for Ashby, also on an interim basis.

Among the dissenting votes on Patton’s and Ashby’s departures was Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke, who is herself facing misdemeanor charges for allegedly violating the city’s charter by calling for Greene to be fired.