Fired Portsmouth city attorney sues mayor for defamation

Ana Ley, The Virginian-Pilot
·4 min read

Fired Portsmouth City Attorney Solomon Ashby is suing Mayor John Rowe for defamation — the latest political fallout from a June 10 protest at the city’s downtown Confederate monument.

“It’s unfortunate that a person like Mr. Ashby – who performed his job professionally, loyally, and ethically – has his performance misrepresented to the public,” his attorney Christian Connell wrote in an email. “Mr. Ashby is trying to correct that misrepresentation.”

Rowe did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Ashby’s lawsuit, filed Oct. 20 in Norfolk Circuit Court, cites a WVEC-TV interview aired shortly after the attorney’s Sept. 8 ouster. During the interview, Rowe said a majority of City Council members had “lost confidence” in Ashby and City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton.

Rowe referred to an email in which Ashby advised councilmembers to “resist any inclination to act in a manner that may be in violation of the law” as they considered firing Pettis Patton. The attorney expressed concern that doing so could be construed as interference in Pettis Patton’s oversight of a department head, which would violate an often-cited city charter provision that bars council members from giving orders to subordinates of the city manager.

Rowe described that as “not very balanced and good advice.” Ashby said the mayor’s public criticism damaged his reputation, causing “great humiliation, shame, vilification, exposure to public infamy, scandal, and disgrace.” He’s asking for $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages and expenses.

Last month, just before the Labor Day weekend, Pettis Patton had temporarily removed Police Chief Angela Greene from her post amid controversy over criminal charges filed in the vandalism of the Confederate monument. Less than a week later, Pettis Patton was ousted abruptly and without explanation. She was supposed to retire at the end of the year, having held the job since Sept. 1, 2015.

“Any action taken against Dr. Patton could be construed as an attempt to interfere in the day-to-day operations of the city and the employment status of Dr. Patton’s subordinate, Chief Greene,” Ashby wrote in the email to councilmembers, which was made public in the court filing. “Those who would vote for such an action could be found to be assisting in the violation of the aforementioned code sections, a misdemeanor.”

He warned the group that a public vote or motion against Pettis Patton could result in “a citizen filing a charge against you with the magistrate.”

As they often do with hot-button issues, council members voted over both departures down racial lines. The white members, Rowe, Nathan Clark, Elizabeth Psimas and Bill Moody, voted to accept Pettis Patton’s resignation and to fire Ashby. The Black members, Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke, Shannon Glover and Paul Battle, voted against the moves.

None explained their vote.

Police charged 19 people with crimes related to the June 10 protest, including Democratic state Sen. Louise Lucas, despite Pettis Patton saying the police chief had been told not to investigate because of a conflict of interest.

Like with many political disputes in the majority-Black city, racial identity has been the dividing line. Lucas, who is Lucas-Burke’s mother, is one of the most powerful Black politicians in the state. A senator for 28 years, she is the chamber’s president pro tempore.

Crowds of mostly Black protesters gathered in the weeks that followed by the hundreds to denounce the police department’s charges. Mostly white protesters — supported by a Virginia Beach attorney and gun shop owner, Tim Anderson, who is trying to oust Lucas from office and is also facing a defamation lawsuit she filedgathered simultaneously in defense of Greene.

And, as Ashby predicted, Portsmouth residents have turned to local magistrates to pursue charges against three councilmembers — Lucas-Burke, Psimas and Moody — for violating the charter’s language barring their interference in City Hall operations. A judge eventually dismissed charges against Lucas-Burke, while officials rejected efforts to file charges against Psimas and Moody.

During a work session Tuesday night, Moody asked the city’s legal department — temporarily overseen by Assistant City Attorney Burle Stromberg — to revisit the language and find out whether other governing bodies in Virginia have a similar rule.

With most of the seven-member council having been accused of violating it, the group agreed unanimously.

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