VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms sat down with 10 On Your Side’s Andy Fox to talk about the conflict of interest scandal and accusations he spent 14 months fighting.
The accusations stemmed from an investigation by the Virginian-Pilot, which reported that Sessoms appeared to have voted in favor of projects that would have benefited TowneBank — where he used to serve as president.
He pleaded “no contest” in December to a Class 3 misdemeanor violation of the Virginia Conflict of Interest Act, and had four other related charges dropped.
Mayor Sessoms spoke only to WAVY’s Andy Fox about what was going on behind-the-scenes during the conflict of interest investigation.
“It was tremendously shocking,” says Sessoms, who agreed to meet with WAVY in what remains his office at City Hall.
The four-month exhaustive investigation examining Will Sessoms’ voting record over the years screamed corruption at City Hall. The Nov. 8 Virginian Pilot headline read ‘Sessoms’ Council Votes Benefited TowneBank Borrowers.’
Sessoms admits he was greatly concerned and overwhelmed by the depth of reporting by reporter John Holland, who has since left the Pilot.”The first thing that went through my mind was ‘How in the world did this happen? Did I do this? What are people going to think reading this article?” said Mayor Sessoms.
On November 14, 2014, his first public appearance after the story hit, the questions couldn’t be more clear and direct, when 10 On Your Side asked Sessoms, “Do you have plans to resign?” He answered, “I would say, I need time to get through these accusations.” When asked if there ever was a moment when he thought based on what he was reading, if he should resign, his answer surprised us, “That was one of my first reactions to do that… because of the magnitude of that article.”
Behind the scenes in the Sessoms’ home were tears, confusion, anger, love. “Every one of my children and grandchildren were at my house every night. They were so worried about me,” Sessoms said. Several of Sessoms’ friends shared how dismayed they were by the breadth of the investigation and the votes and asking what did Sessoms know and when did he know it? From the start Sessoms’ was blessed with friends who thought even if the votes were cast he did not have nefarious intent in his heart. They did believe from the start Sessoms’ did not intentionally cause conflict of interest votes.
Over time dark despair turned to light and hope as Sessoms gained his footing on the blockbuster scandal, “As I got into the votes and started thinking about it, I don’t think I have done one thing illegal, and I can assure the world I have not done one thing for personal gain, or for the benefit of my employer.”
Sessoms was angry with The Pilot article. Believe it or not he was less concerned about the votes and the accuracy than the timing. He was livid The Pilot would publish it while he was half a world away in the Philippines on an economic trade mission for the city. His reputation tarnished, he thought the paper unfair to rush publication, “Yes, I truly believe if I had time, could I have prevented the article? I doubt that, but I do think the magnitude of the article would have been less than the way it came out.” Sessoms spoke with the reporter, and says a meeting date was set up after his return.
Andy Fox reached out to The Pilot for an interview. New Publisher Pat Richardson emailed this reply, “We stand behind this story and are comfortable with the timing of it. This was an important story for the community to know about.”
The Pilot investigation had far-reaching affects and impacted TowneBank, forcing it to change policy. Bank senior executives like Sessoms would no longer be able to run for elective office. Sessoms had to choose between keeping his job with TowneBank or be Mayor. He chose the people, with a little nudging, “I think you can’t understate the parachute, it was very generous,” Sessoms admitted about his deal leaving TowneBank, made public by the bank itself.
This was the Sessoms’ parachute: He gets $425,000 a year until 2019, and then his retirement kicks in at $215,000 a year for 15 years.
In efforts to be transparent, Robert Aston, the Chairman and CEO of TowneBank, stated, “Because this new requirement is retroactive, meaning Will could not have known when he ran for political office that the policy would change, we are rightfully honoring all of the financial terms under his 2005 employment contract and his retirement plan.”
We asked Sessoms, “If the parachute were not as generous, would you have resigned as Mayor and remained at the bank?” After a long pause of thinking he answered, “I don’t know the answer to that question because that wasn’t presented to me.”
What began as more than 50 votes in question was whittled down to five votes. Special Prosecutor Michael Doucette, the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Lynchburg, said most of the votes had either occurred outside the statute of limitations or there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed. Doucette found five votes Sessoms cast that resulted in five misdemeanor counts of violating the Virginia Conflict of Interest Act.
As part of a plea agreement, four charges were dropped in exchange for Sessoms pleading “no contest” to one vote involving property known as the Madison Landing Condominiums. His Consent Agenda vote followed unanimous support of the Planning Commission, no opposition from the public and no opposition from fellow council members. The vote allowed the builders to potentially make more money by selling more condos.
Sessoms failed to dig deep into 26 pages of information on the project to find any conflict, “I stopped there (with the first top pages of the packet.) Could I have dug deeper? Yes. Should I have? Yes. I made a mistake and I am very sorry for that.”
The packet of information was provided to Sessoms by city staff; the City Attorney offered no red flags. The developers failed to disclose financial services with TowneBank. Digging deeper in the packet on page 16, Sessoms should have seen the developers, and recognized them as customers of TowneBank. It should be noted on Page 17 the developers failed to list their $1.78 million dollars in TowneBank loans, and the city failed to challenge the lack of information provided on the Disclosure Statement. “Madison Landing LLC didn’t mean one thing to me. Period,” said Sessoms. However, the names of Developers Steven and John Bishard did, but he failed to get to page 16 to see those names.
The name TowneBank never appears on the Disclosure Form, which would have raised the red flags and Sessoms says had he known the TowneBank connection he would have abstained from voting for the increase in density on the project making the Bishards, clients of TowneBank more money.
After all is said and done, Sessoms thinks, “What meant the most to me, was the prosecutor stating I did not do one thing for personal gain, or for the gain of my employer.”
Sessoms still feels tremendous loss by what happened, professionally, politically, and financially. To anyone who thinks he got off easy his reply is, “They weren’t in my shoes for 14 months.”
The big question, unknown at this time, is if he will run for re-election or is this how it all ends? He will only say this, “I promise you this one thing. If I run I will win. I will work 24-7 to make sure that happens.”
Based on that, if Sessoms runs again you will know he has some type of critical information showing people forgive him, and want him to continue as Mayor. If he doesn’t run then you know the damage from the investigation cannot be overcome. “That troubles me. It greatly troubles me because it resulted in my pleading no contest on that issue, and that is from someone who doesn’t even have a traffic violation. Yes I consider this a big deal, and I regret it.”