VIRGINIA BEACH — Less than an hour after he pleaded no contest to one of five criminal charges that he violated the state’s conflict of interest laws, Mayor Will Sessoms said he doesn’t know if he’ll seek reelection next fall.
He and his family will decide his political future after the next 30 days, during which time he will examine his political support and strength, he said Monday following a court hearing that lasted less than five minutes. Surrounded by his wife and friends, including retiring City Manager Jim Spore, Sessoms accepted the deal, which dismissed four of the five charges against him in exchange for one no contest plea.
Each charge alleged Sessoms broke the law by failing to disclose his relationship with TowneBank to the public before participating in council votes that affected the bank and its clients. Each was a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $500.
Under the terms, he agreed to donate $1,000 to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government while special prosecutor Mike Doucette asked that a $500 fine attached to the verdict be waived and that the judge not strip Sessoms of his mayoral seat.
Sessoms said at a post-hearing press conference that it felt like a ton of bricks had been taken off his chest but that he needs time to digest the agreement and its fallout.
“I’ve never had my character gone after like this,” he said. “And also, I’m a guy who doesn’t even have a traffic violation … and I just went to court and pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor. And that being the case, it bothers me. It hurts me, what I’ve done.”
He has “renewed energy” to tackle the rest of his term, he said.
Sessoms said that while he initially wanted to fight the charges, he accepted the deal because he did not want to extend the ordeal, which had already lasted more than a year. He apologized for what he called a “technical error.”
Councilman Ben Davenport said he hopes Sessoms seeks to retain his seat and gets it.
“He’s an honorable man and we’re lucky to have him,” he said.
Councilman John Moss, when asked for his reaction to the resolution of Sessoms’ court case, said, “The mayor has taken the minimal possible responsibility for his actions and the court has applied the minimum possible punishment.”
Sessoms said he was sorry he let his guard down in 2011 by not looking far enough into documents to see that TowneBank was involved in the Madison Landing housing development project before a vote related to it. He pleaded no contest to charges related to that vote, which would have passed without his support, he said.
He said if he had known the bank’s involvement and had disclosed that he was president of that bank at that time, he could have legally voted on the project and would not have been charged. The city attorney has taken steps to better inform council members of all parties involved in projects to avoid similar accusations in the future, he added.
Doucette likened the legally required disclosure statement to “magic words” that would have allowed Sessoms to vote while complying with the law in that instance.
The prosecutor said getting Sessoms to admit he made an error and to publicly take responsibility for it was the most important thing in the case.
“It’s not about the money,” Doucette said.
Five guilty verdicts would have likely resulted in a total maximum fine of $2,500 and no forfeiture of office, he said.
After the Virginian-Pilot published a report about Sessoms’ dual roles as mayor of Virginia Beach and president of TowneBank, Doucette spent a year investigating Sessoms’ voting record before bringing the five charges in early November.
Sessoms began his post-hearing press conference by criticizing former Virginian-Pilot reporter John Holland for the paper’s story without naming him. He said “the reporter” did not give him the “courtesy of an interview” as scheduled before publishing the investigative report and made only two efforts to speak with him for the article, while he was at lunch and a funeral. Sessoms said the reporter “did not indicate the magnitude of the allegations he intended to accuse me of” and knew Sessoms did not have time to speak.
Sessoms later mentioned a third phone call that took place while he was out of the country. He said the ensuing firestorm could have been avoided if he had been given a chance to explain himself in the story.
The November 2014 article quotes Sessoms multiple times and refers to multiple interviews. The report also asks Sessoms to respond to specific votes. Holland told Southside Daily he emailed and talked to Sessoms a handful of times before the story ran and that he told the mayor the story examined every vote he cast between 2009 and 2014 and that the two needed to go through them one by one.
“But he just had no interest in sitting down with us,” Holland said.
Holland defended his reporting by pointing to its aftermath: Sessoms resigned from TowneBank and has now pleaded no contest to one of the conflicts it exposed.
The Virginia Press Association named him the state’s 2015 outstanding journalist of the year following the report.
Have a story idea or news tip? Contact city hall reporter Judah Taylor at Judah@SouthsideDaily.com or 757-490-2750.
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