January 20, 2015 News & Features » Cover Story


To Jail and Back 

Delegate Joe Morrissey fights his way back to the General Assembly. But things aren’t as he left them.

click to enlarge Delegate Joe Morrissey is serving two terms: one in jail and one in the House of Delegates.

Scott Elmquist

Delegate Joe Morrissey is serving two terms: one in jail and one in the House of Delegates.

Joe Morrissey is running late.

It’s about 11 a.m. on Wednesday, the first day of the General Assembly’s 2015 session, and a small crowd of reporters is waiting for him in the lobby of the legislature’s office building. Word circulates that foul weather has complicated his commute to Capitol Square from Henrico County Jail East.

Morrissey is serving a six-month sentence on a conviction on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He also won re-election to the House of Delegates last night, and because a judge granted Morrissey work release, he may serve in the General Assembly by day and sleep in jail at night.

Investigators say Morrissey, who represents Henrico County, Charles City County and part of Richmond, had sex with a 17-year-old receptionist at his law office in Highland Springs. Morrissey says his phone was hacked by the girl’s lesbian ex-lover, whom he accuses of planting the evidence against him.

He entered an Alford plea in the case, meaning he denies guilt but acknowledges there is enough evidence to convict him.

Morrissey has vowed to clear his name through a civil suit, which he says will explain the evidence.

Prosecutors produced pages of text messages they say he exchanged with the girl, such as: “Also, did I mention how much I like touching your body … I think I’ve explored most of it but I need a few more hours to make sure!” In another exchange, according to the evidence, he bragged about a fling with the underage girl in an all caps text to a longtime friend: “HEY BUDDY … JUST F——-D HER ON MY CONFERENCE TABLE AT LAW OFFICE. THEN ONCE AGAIN ON THE FLOOR FOR GOOD MEASURE!”

This is the second time Morrissey has held public office while serving a jail sentence. In 1992, he served five days in Richmond City Jail as the city’s commonwealth’s attorney. The sentence followed a courthouse brawl with an opposing lawyer.

click to enlarge Morrissey arrives late, delayed by ice, and is promptly sworn in by House Clerk Paul Nardo in front of a mass of cameras in his office. - NED OLIVER
  • Ned Oliver
  • Morrissey arrives late, delayed by ice, and is promptly sworn in by House Clerk Paul Nardo in front of a mass of cameras in his office.

Morrissey arrives at the General Assembly building about 20 minutes before the session is scheduled to begin. He tells reporters that when he was released from jail this morning, his Jaguar was covered in ice and he couldn’t get the door open.

Fortuitously, Morrissey says, a Washington Post reporter was waiting for an interview and offered him a ride. He doesn’t answer when asked about how he’ll get back to jail in time for his evening curfew.

House Clerk Paul Nardo is waiting outside Morrissey’s office. A crowd of reporters pushes inside to watch him swear in the delegate.

Nardo says the venue, which lacks the pomp of a swearing in on the House floor, was Morrissey’s choice.

“Is this normal protocol?” a reporter asks.

“Normal protocol is winning an election and getting sworn in,” Nardo replies.

Nardo offers his congratulations and leaves. Morrissey takes questions from reporters.

He says after yesterday’s election, he returned to jail for the night. Before relinquishing his cell phone, he found out he swept precincts in Charles City County, suggesting he’d won.

Shortly afterward, confirmation came from a reporter who was waiting in the jail’s lobby to interview him about the results.

“A reporter from channel 6 said it’s 100 percent and you’ve increased your margin,” Morrissey says.

He won 42 percent of the vote. The Democrat who ran against him, Kevin Sullivan, took 33 percent of the vote, while Republican Matt Walton got 24 percent.

What was Morrissey’s reception in the cellblock like when his fellow inmates found out he won?

Morrissey breezes past the question: “It was the same way it is every time.”

A lifelong Democrat, Morrissey ran as an independent. Members of his party had roundly called for his resignation following his conviction. They were enraged that when he did resign in December, he immediately announced his candidacy in the special election to replace him.

Because Morrissey lost his seniority in the House by resigning his seat, he’s been forced to vacate his comparatively nice office on the fourth floor, which offered a pleasant view of the Library of Virginia and City Hall, for a walk-in-closet-sized space on the seventh.

Democratic Delegate Kathleen Murphy got Morrissey’s old office. A volunteer outside Murphy’s office says General Assembly staff painted and cleaned before the delegate moved in, but no further measures were taken to cleanse the room.

Morrissey hasn’t had the chance to move in yet, and his office knickknacks, including a pair of pink boxing gloves, a nod to his Fighting Joe moniker, sit in carts in the hallway.

True to form, in response to a question from reporters about how he’ll respond to efforts to remove him from his seat, Morrissey vows a fight, saying he expects “certain people” to take “certain actions.”

“I am going to take it each battle at a time,” Morrissey says. “The most important thing though is that the voters of the 74th District spoke, and they spoke very clearly last night. And their vote, their decision, has to be honored. That’s why the founding fathers, Jefferson and Monroe, walked these halls for that principle — that each vote counts.”

click to enlarge Delegate Joe Morrissey returns to the General Assembly the day after winning re-election while serving a jail sentence on conviction of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Having lost his seniority, he sits in a section for such newcomers as seatmate Joe Preston, D-Petersburg. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Delegate Joe Morrissey returns to the General Assembly the day after winning re-election while serving a jail sentence on conviction of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Having lost his seniority, he sits in a section for such newcomers as seatmate Joe Preston, D-Petersburg.

The 2015 legislative session officially begins at noon, with House Speaker William Howell delivering a few opening remarks.

Howell doesn’t directly address Morrissey’s situation, but a few lines in the wake of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent conviction and sentencing seem pointed: “Our fellow citizens demand honor, integrity and civility. I would encourage all of us — Republicans and Democrats alike — to renew our commitment to meet those standards.”

Morrissey has lost his old desk at the center of the floor of the House of Delegates. He’s been moved into the far right corner of the room reserved for members with no seniority.

He has a history with his new seatmate, Delegate Joe Preston, a newly elected Democrat from Petersburg. The lawyer represented Morrissey in a civil suit more than 20 years ago. One of Morrissey’s clients had sued him, alleging fraud.

Preston says it was a “very, very long trial,” but that the jury returned its verdict in 11 minutes. They found for Morrissey, he says.

Preston talks briefly with Morrissey. Other fellow delegates seem to avoid him. As one reporter observes, “nobody will talk to him.”

Does Preston have any misgivings about getting stuck sitting next to someone whose presence is so controversial?

“Obviously a lot of us feel the conduct is reprehensible,” Preston says. “He’s a sitting delegate that was just sent back here by his constituents and it’s not for me to judge him.”

By midafternoon, Morrissey, who rarely shies away from media attention, seems to be growing weary of the battery of cameras that have followed him through the day. Reporters have been camped out in his hallway outside his office since the session went into recess at 1 p.m.

In a brusque exchange with a television reporter, Morrissey initially refuses to answer questions, saying he addressed reporters all morning and doesn’t want to answer any questions he already fielded.

The reporter protests, saying he wasn’t part of any previous interviews. Morrissey relents and brings the reporter into his office for an interview.

Morrissey also addresses his new secretary. “I apologize,” he says, throwing up his hands, “for all the drama.”

By now, months after the controversy began unfolding, Morrissey has discussed the circumstances surrounding his recent incarceration at length.

When he was arraigned July 1, he spoke for 20 uninterrupted minutes about why the charges against him couldn’t be true. Among the reasons, Morrissey noted, was that one of the text messages investigators said the underage girl sent was, “OMG, I just f——-d my boss.” The girl couldn’t have sent it, Morrissey said: “We have examined 10,000 texts,” and the girl “has never used the acronym OMG in her life.”

The girl, now 18, also denies she had sex with Morrissey.

As outlined in the plea agreement he signed, Morrissey says he was set up by the girl’s former lesbian lover who “mistakenly believed that Mr. Morrissey [and the girl] were becoming romantically involved.”

Morrissey says the alleged hacker fabricated both ends of the exchanges by logging into both Morrissey’s and the girl’s Apple iCloud accounts on two separate iPods.

At trial, “an expert witness would have testified that [the hacker] now had the ability not only to monitor text messages on [the pair’s] telephones, but to also send texts and photographs.”

Morrissey also argues in the plea agreement that on several of the dates text messages seem to indicate the two were together, they weren’t.

Morrissey outlined the position in his plea agreement: “Multiple third party witnesses of high credibility would have testified that it would have been impossible for Mr. Morrissey to have had sex with [the girl] … as they were with Mr. Morrissey at the time that the sexual encounter was alleged to have taken place.”

click to enlarge Television cameras and reporters follow Morrissey for most of the day. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Television cameras and reporters follow Morrissey for most of the day.

By 3 in the afternoon, it sounds like some House leaders are leaning away from the possibility of seeking to remove Morrissey from the General Assembly.

“An expulsion hearing would be a really big distraction,” House Minority Leader David Toscano says. “He got the most votes — he won. We can’t be distracted by Joe Morrissey and all that he’s doing.”

In a statement the night before, Howell says that he’s disappointed by Morrissey’s victory and is exploring “a number of options available to the body to address questions of conduct regarding its members.”

The party leaders say they expect to address the issue this week.

Toscano says the House’s options are to expel, censure or do nothing. “And I don’t think anyone wants to do nothing,” Toscano says.

A censure could be as simple as the House passing a resolution condemning Morrissey’s conduct, Toscano says. Or members could vote to suspend some of Morrissey’s privileges — for example, by removing him from his committee assignments or taking away his official House of Delegates state license plate.

Morrissey says he entered an Alford plea because he was facing multiple felony charges and a possible 40 years in prison. The father of three children out of wedlock says he was thinking of his 2-year-old and didn’t want to risk a long prison term.

But he’s promised that all of the “titillating details” will come out when he files a civil suit against the people he says triggered the investigation — the alleged hacker, the girl’s father and one of the girl’s sisters.

Morrissey says he doesn’t expect them to be able to pay if he wins a judgment — he wants to be publicly vindicated.

But civil court is also a venue where it’s less likely that all the evidence against him will come out. It’s unclear whether the defendants would be able to muster the same kinds of resources state prosecutors had at their disposal to counter Morrissey.

Prosecutors planned to call electronic forensic experts and an FBI Cell Tower Task Force expert to counter Morrissey’s arguments that he wasn’t with the girl when they allegedly had sex, according to the plea agreement.

There’s also dispute over whether Morrissey knew the girl was underage.

Prosecutors said they planned to call a witness who watched Morrissey “closely observing [the girl’s] figure as she walked by him.” The witness says she told Morrissey, “Whoa boy — she’s under-age.” In response, Morrissey “merely smiled back,” according to the plea agreement.

Morrissey says in the plea agreement that another witness would testify that she heard the girl mislead Morrissey about her age.

Morrissey leaves his office in a trench coat at 5:30. He declines to say where he’s headed.

“I’m going out — that’s all,” he says, adding that he intends to return for Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s first State of the Commonwealth address at 7.

Morrissey exits the General Assembly Building and walks up Grace Street a block to St. Peter’s Catholic Church. He tries to enter but the doors are locked. He then walks into a nearby parking garage.

Morrissey spent the afternoon in his office, where he says he wrote thank-you notes to supporters, talked with his law partner, Paul Goldman, reviewed legislation and unpacked boxes that were sitting outside his office.

He also learns that Howell’s office has indeed stripped him of his committee assignments. Morrissey is not pleased by the news. He calls the speaker a “petulant little child.”

Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade, who’s overseeing Morrissey’s work release, says the delegate is due back in jail by 7, but will be allowed an extension for the governor’s address.

“He’s not going out to any parties or any socials or anything like that,” says Wade, who’s office is tracking Morrissey’s whereabouts at all times via a GPS ankle bracelet. “But he’s got to be able to do his job in the General Assembly.”

click to enlarge Henrico County Sheriff Michael Wade’s office tracks Morrissey’s movements using a GPS ankle bracelet. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Henrico County Sheriff Michael Wade’s office tracks Morrissey’s movements using a GPS ankle bracelet.

Half an hour before McAuliffe’s address, Morrissey’s legislative assistant calls my cell phone twice in a span of about 10 minutes. The assistant connects me to Morrissey, who asks if I’m willing to give him a ride back to jail.

Morrissey’s car is still back at the jail’s parking lot, and it hadn’t escaped his notice that I was following him through the day. Why not perform the public service of getting him back to jail?

About 20 minutes after the governor concludes his remarks, Morrissey climbs into my car. He says he thinks McAuliffe’s speech was excellent. Then he starts making phone calls.

The first three sound like they’re to campaign volunteers. He tells them he thinks his day went “very, very well,” and thanks them for all their support and hard work. The fourth call involves a radio interview he’s trying to set up for the morning. He tells the person on the other end of the phone that he intends to emphasize how positive his campaign was.

Henrico County Jail’s eastern campus is in New Kent County, about a 40-minute drive down Interstate 64 from the Capitol. In the latter half of the ride, Morrissey tells me he isn’t dwelling on the possibility that his fellow lawmakers might attempt to expel or otherwise censure him.

“I kind of compartmentalize things,” he says, “and I don’t focus on things that are out of my control.”

And though he was publicly shunned today, he says he had a few encouraging private conversations: “My spirits were bolstered by several of my colleagues who came up to me and said something along the lines of: ‘Nobody saw you doing this, Joe. Congratulations, once again you shocked everyone with your victory.’ And that together with some very warm comments by my colleagues — it was reassuring.”

Does he have any regrets about putting the state legislature — already battered and embarrassed by the corruption trial of the state’s last governor — through having a sitting member serving a jail sentence?

“Have there been times when I second-guessed it?” Morrissey asks rhetorically. But he trails off, not really answering. “I guess what keeps me going is the knowledge that I still have the opportunity to bring everything out in court.”

The jail’s razor-wire fences appear. Morrissey’s Jaguar is still encased in ice. He gets out of the car and heads in for the night. S



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