Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms could be removed from office at a judge’s discretion if he is found guilty of knowingly violating the state’s Conflict of Interest Act, according to those laws.
Sessoms, who was charged Wednesday with five counts of violating the act, would not be required to step down if convicted. However, the Virginia Conflict of Interest Act 2015-16 Guide for Local Government Leaders says in part:
“In addition to the criminal consequences, if the council member is found guilty of a knowing violation, he is also guilty of malfeasance in office. In that case, the judge may order the forfeiture of the seat on council. § 2.2-3122.”
Sessoms issued a statement today saying his loyalty is to the city’s citizens, and that he wants to address the accusations in criminal court and not in the press.
“I have never participated in any vote with the intention of benefiting myself personally or my former employer,” he said.
Sessoms faces five misdemeanor charges for votes he cast between 2009 and 2014 that benefited TowneBank, where he served as a president during that time, according to a summary of the allegations provided by Mike Doucette, the special prosecutor in the case.
Doucette told reporters today that only sex offenses and felonies result in a public official automatically being kicked out of office. Reminded by a reporter of a section of law that says a judge can remove city councilmembers who are found guilty of malfeasance in relation to conflicts of interest, he said he would double-check.
“Removals by a judge are rare,” Doucette said.
Doucette said Sessoms is accused of failing to disclose his relationship to TowneBank during the five votes in question. Whether he knowingly committed a violation is irrelevant according to the law, Doucette said.
“The act has a number of technical requirements on it,” Doucette said. “It basically says you shall do this, you shall make these declarations if you have a personal interest in this particular transaction.”
The mayor, first elected to the seat in 2008, is scheduled to appear in court Dec. 7, but Doucette said that date is likely to be pushed back. Sessoms faces a maximum fine of $2,500 — $500 for each charge — if convicted on all counts.
Doucette, the commonwealth’s attorney in Lynchburg, scrambled to file the charges at the 11th hour before the statute of limitations expired on Nov.8, one year after the potential conflicts of interest were raised in a Virginian-Pilot investigation. Doucette said he would have brought the same charges had he been given more time.
Several councilmembers declined to comment or could not be reached.
“I’m sorry that the mayor and his family are going through this,” Councilwoman Rosemary Wilson said, adding that she is sorry for citizens, too.
Councilwoman Shannon Kane echoed Wilson, saying Sessom loves the city and that she didn’t think he’d “do something like that knowingly.”
Asked how the charges might loom over meetings, Kane said the shadow was already there.
“It’s been that way for a year,” she said, referring to when the investigation publicly began nearly a year ago. “At least now he knows what the situation is. We’re a step further toward a conclusion where as before we, and he, knew nothing.”
Late Wednesday, Councilman John Moss said despite political differences with Sessoms, the mayor is innocent until proven guilty in a courtroom.
“If he is, then you can ask me what I think about it then,” he said.
The charges are punishable by less than what is possible for having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle, but Doucette said conflict of interest violations are still more troublesome.
That is “because of the transparency aspect of it,” he said. “The public has to have confidence in what its public officials are doing.”
Sessom’s full statement read as follows:
“I have received the five summonses taken out by the special prosecutor. I have never participated in any vote with the intention of benefiting myself personally or my former employer. My loyalty has always been to the city of Virginia Beach and our citizens. I have never intentionally violated the conflict of interest act or any other law or ordinance. I intend to address these charges and each and every allegation in the coming days and weeks. Given that this is now a criminal prosecution, on the advise of counsel, I will not make any further comment and certainly do not intend to try this case in the press.”