by Brandon Jarvis

After years of asking for help from state leaders, residents in the City of Petersburg have become frustrated, to say the least. 

It surprised no one when state Senator Joe Morrissey (D), who represents Petersburg, was recently in the news for breaking the law by allegedly campaigning inside a polling location. While they say they fully support holding the senator accountable if he did break the law, Petersburg residents have larger concerns for their community than the legality of Morrissey handing out donuts.

This conversation was brought to the forefront of community groups again when Morrissey blamed Virginia’s Attorney General for the case against him. “The timing of these summonses is highly suspicious as they come after Senator Morrissey endorsed Mark Herring’s opponent, Delegate Jay Jones, for Attorney General,” said Morrissey’s staff in an announcement on Friday. 

“I’m shocked but not surprised at Attorney General Mark Herring’s behavior,” said Morrissey in the same press release. “What with people dying from COVID-19, losing their jobs, going homeless, and worrying about feeding their children, Attorney General Mark Herring instead makes the decision to allocate the resources of his office to investigate the donut delivery man!”

Herring’s communications director denied the accusations that the Attorney General was involved in the investigation, noting that the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney opened the investigation, Virginia State Police conducted it, and New Kent Commonwealth’s Attorney made the final decision to file charges. Herring’s only involvement was approving the request from the Virginia State Police asking for authorization to move forward with the investigation, according to Herring’s spokesperson. 

Meanwhile, Petersburg residents say they feel unheard and overlooked. “We don’t care nearly as much about yet another rule broken by ‘bad boy’ Fighting Joe as we do about getting even a spoonful of attention to the many Petersburg problems that have been referred to the state judicial establishment over the past 5 years,” said Barb Rudolph, a community activist in Petersburg. “Whether it’s Petersburg, Chesterfield, Richmond, or New Kent, Commonwealth’s Attorneys are state-funded, constitutional officers and the conduit to the investigative firepower of the Virginia State Police. No one outside of here seems to really want to turn over all of the slimy rocks in Petersburg.”

Petersburg has experienced a tumultuous ride in the last five years. The city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in 2016 before bringing in outside consultants, the Robert Bobb Group, to help the city recover. At the time, the city was facing over $18 million in bills and their budget was experiencing a $12 million shortfall. The city manager at the time, William Johnson, was facing sharp scrutiny and calls for his resignation for allowing the city to reach such a low point financially.

An audit at the time revealed that several law enforcement agencies including the FBI and Virginia State Police were investigating different aspects of Petersburg’s government operations. “A number of citizens were contacted by the Virginia State Police in 2016, and questioned about city operations,” said Rudolph. 

After the audit was completed in 2017, Petersburg’s Treasurer Kevin Brown admitted to stealing $2,300 in petty cash. According to reports at the time, the audit showed that he also waived tax penalties, interest fees, and sometimes even the principal on customer’s tax payments. 

The audit also found that $200,000 was missing from the city’s recreation and parks department. They were unable to investigate the incident, however, due to the statute of limitations on how long a crime can be investigated. 

In early 2016, Petersburg officials were facing mounting pressure from the community after the dire situation of the city’s finances was magnified. Then, after water bill delivery was delayed across the city, residents said they were done waiting, and began to loudly demand a change in management. That public momentum was expected to boil over into a city council meeting in February; however, a city employee’s attempt to shield the councilors succeeded before eventually backfiring.

Several members of the community were planning to show up to a city council meeting on Feb. 16, 2016, to express their displeasure directly with the councilors.

While the community was advocating the city council to make changes, the mayor implied a state legislator used threats against him in an apparent attempt to influence the decision

In a 2016 phone conversation which was recorded by Mayor Howard Myers, Petersburg state Senator Rosalyn Dance (D), who would later be primaried and defeated in 2019 by Morrissey, can be heard discussing the city manager situation with Myers. Just days before the city council was scheduled to meet and face the public backlash for massive mishandling of city operations, Dance described a process in which council could terminate the city manager and replace his staff. “Knowing the five people at the level of assistant manager, those people function at the [pleasure] of the city manager to the extent that if he goes, they can go too because the next one doesn’t have to be saddled with that person.” 

Dance also threatened to keep funding from Petersburg if Myers did not take her advice. “We asked them to give you money and you haven’t [shown] that you can handle what you got,” Dance said, according to a transcription of the recorded phone call. “So there’s no project that you’ve got out there that the state will support unless Lashrecse and I say, Governor, yes, we want you to support this. You will get no state money. You will get no federal money. You will not because my reputation is out there.”

The conversation then continued.

“So what are you thinking?” asked Dance.

 “Um, I’m thinking that I am still making decisions,” responded Myers, the mayor of Petersburg. 

“Tell me what you mean by that,” replied Dance. 

“Well, basically, I guess I need to see the facts behind the allegations,” answered Myers. 

“Do you know what you sound like?” asked Dance. 

“What?” replied Myers. 

“You sound like I’m telling you I’ve shared with you information that I really should not have shared with you, but I did not want you as a mayor to go down as not being in control of the situation, not being on top of it,” said Dance.

“I do understand that,” replied Myers. 

 “But I can tell you this,” said Dance. “Know what this sounds like? It sounds like you have consulted with people that I asked you not to consult with.”

Myers denied consulting with anyone on the matter. 

“Okay. I’m just saying what it sounds like because, you know, this isn’t my first rodeo,” replied Dance. 

This conversation took place three days before the city council meeting that was scheduled to take place on Feb. 16. 

That meeting was canceled, however, just a few hours before it was scheduled to begin. The Petersburg City Attorney at the time, Brian Telfair, reported receiving a racially-charged email and phone call threatening violence against city leaders on the day that city council was supposed to meet. The meeting was then canceled due to the threats. 

The problem, however, is that the threatening phone call never actually happened. Telfair lied. 

Detectives eventually retrieved camera footage that showed the Clerk of Council, Nykesha Jackson, purchasing a pre-paid burner phone from Family Dollar. According to court documents, Jackson said that Telfair gave her the money to buy the phone. 

Members of the community were concerned at the time that members of city council were involved with the scheme to cancel the Feb. 16 meeting. Court documents from Telfair’s case show that Myers, the mayor at the time, emailed Telfair’s aid telling her to announce that the meeting was going to be canceled. This email was sent 17 minutes before Telfair claimed to receive the threatening phone call. 

While Myers is no longer the mayor, he still serves on city council. “The meeting was canceled based on the direction of the City Attorney to myself and the Clerk of Council,” Myers said in an email interview with Virginia Scope. “I emphatically had no part in the process of the actions the City Attorney conjured or knew of such action other than the advisement to ensure that the council and citizens were safe based on the information provided by counsel.”

Telfair was able to resign before it was uncovered that he filed the false reports. He was eventually convicted in Sept. of 2017 after pleading guilty. He received 12 months of jail time with 11 months suspended.

Telfair was also instrumental in a deal that led to developer Chris Harrison purchasing the defunct Ramada Inn building in the city. The upgrades on the building have been minimal at best with holes in the walls being visible from Interstate 95. Harrison was charged with six misdemeanors in early 2020 for failing to bring the property to code. 

The Ramada Inn in Petersburg

Harrison tried to blame Petersburg for his failure to follow through on the commitment to renovate the building. “Every time I talk to a lender, they do the same Google search and background check as everybody else,” Harrison said in an interview with the Progress-Index earlier this year. “When they see these articles and negative publicity, they’re not going to want to do the deal, it’s like stepping into a hornet’s nest for them.” 

City council is now moving to have the building demolished.  

Johnson, the city manager for five years was fired for ‘cause’ at the beginning of March in 2016. In interviews at the time, residents expressed their relief that he was finally terminated, as many of them blamed him for the dire state of Petersburg’s finances. “This is evidence that people, united, can bring about change that is sorely needed,” Larry Akin Smith said at the time in an interview with Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We have no animosity toward our city. We love our city. We want to see the best for our city. When millions have been mismanaged, when bills aren’t being paid, we can’t sit idly by without raising our voices.”

Johnson is now the city manager in the City of Emporia near the North Carolina border.

While Myers is no longer the mayor, he remains on city council. Sam Parham is the current mayor and he served as vice-mayor during Myers’ tenure. Myers and Parham have remained the top-two elected officials in Petersburg throughout the city’s crisis and recovery. The city is recovering, though, ending the 2018-2019 fiscal year with over $8 million in unassigned general funds.

Parham faced backlash in 2017 as a petition circulated calling for him to be removed from office for several listed reasons, one of them being the failure to publicly report the details of the severance package that was given to Telfair in 2016. The details were only released after a FOIA request was made at the time. Parham has not responded to several requests for comment. 

Members of the community say they feel like they are shouting into the void as they continue to point out irregularities, with no action being taken to provide accountability for the people that allowed Petersburg to reach such low depths. 

Rudolph brought concerns of corruption within the government to the Commonwealth Attorney in 2019, Cheryl Wilson, who is now a judge in the 11th district. “She believed my concern was valid and forwarded the information to the Chesterfield CA’s office,” says Rudolph. “Yet none of these ‘investigations’ have led to any findings or any changes in management of this city. The people’s attempts to get support from [Mark] Herring, including a petition sent in 2016, have been met with complete silence.” 

In 2016, a group of citizens from Petersburg sent a letter to the Office of the Attorney General asking for his assistance. “Dear Mr. Attorney General,” begins the letter. “We the citizens of the City of Petersburg are writing this letter because we are in dire need of your assistance. Petersburg, a once-proud city with a glorious past, is faced with its very survival due to the apparent mismanagement and ineptness of its elected officials and their hires.” 

Rudolph says they never heard back from Herring’s office. “It seems like they figure they performed their obligations when they sent us Robert Bobb.” 

Myers told Virginia Scope that he doesn’t believe state officials have failed the city. He blames a convoluted process for the public’s mistrust. “I do not believe that the state and law enforcement failed with regards to the specifics of any matter as it relates to Petersburg,” Myers said in an email. “I believe that there is much convolution in the process and the reporting of certain actions whether valid or invalid leads the public to question the validity of such investigations. The layers of government, its structure and environment are not perfect at best, but the elected officials provide the best representation based on the form of government-chartered.”

In a statement to Virginia Scope, Herring’s spokesperson said that the Attorney General understands the concerns coming from the citizens of Petersburg. “Attorney General Herring understands the concerns and frustrations that members of the Petersburg community have and believes that corruption and illegal conduct should never be tolerated in the Commonwealth,” said Charlotte Gomer, press secretary for Herring. “If anyone has any evidence of illegal behavior I would encourage them to report it to their local law enforcement, the Virginia State Police, or the FBI so that the appropriate agency may conduct a thorough investigation.” 

Residents say that they have already been doing that. “The comments from the Attorney General’s office mean far less than timely attention to ongoing investigations, at the time, would have,” said Rudolph.

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