PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — For the past 7 months, 10 On Your Side has covered the investigation — and subsequent indictment — of Portsmouth City Councilman Mark Whitaker.
For the first time on television Whitaker and his wife spoke about his 20 count indictment related to fraud and forgery.
They both spoke to our Brandi Cummings at length Tuesday.
The couple entered the sanctuary of New Bethel Baptist church together for the interview.
Doctors Mark and Ingrid Whitaker are showing a sign of solidary less than a month before the Portsmouth City Councilman is scheduled to stand trial.
“To have this happen, it’s just a shame. I think it’s a waste of the public’s money,” Dr. Ingrid Whitaker said.
Ingrid Whitaker is a professor and current Portsmouth School Board member. She still recalls her thoughts when the family learned of the investigation back in March.
“That it wasn’t true. That I know my husband. We’ve been married for 23 years. I know that he’s been a member of this community since he was born and he would never do anything to hurt anyone. He would never do anything unlawful,” she said.
In all, Whitaker is facing 20 felonies — 11 for forgery, seven for passing forged checks and two for identity fraud.
The case centers around claims that Whitaker forged the names of three different people on checks dating back to 2013 and 2014.
“No way in the world would I have ever forged any of their names. That was all a complete lie,” Dr. Mark Whitaker said.
He instead claims the investigation was a political stunt by two other elected officials.
“It was reprehensible that the Commonwealth’s Attorney would allow the sheriff to use her office as a means of trying to criminalize me my family and my church,” Mark Whitaker said.
The initial investigation, which was launched by Sheriff Bill Watson, began in March.
Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales recused herself from it however according to her statement to 10 On Your Side, her office found the person who would prosecute the case.
The prosecutor who agreed to handle the case — with approval from the judge — lives in Winchester, but has ties to Portsmouth. Andrew Robbins was a Portsmouth Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney from 1999 to 2008.
When contacted by phone Wednesday, Robbins told Cummings he is legally prohibited from commenting on the case.
During the interview Cummings asked Whitaker, “How then could she [Stephanie Morales] be used in some way to then bring charges if she has since recused herself from the case?” To which Whitaker replied, “Because she knows the facts that Bill Watson as well as his deputy Lee Cherry have both been very vocal in their opposition to me as a council person.”
In a lengthy statement to 10 On Your Side Morales said:
I would like Dr. Whitaker and the citizens of Portsmouth to imagine a system of justice in which important players – like prosecutors – simply ignored conflicts of interest and made decisions where they could legitimately be accused – after the fact, of having shown favoritism toward those who have power over them. That would be a terribly flawed system of justice and I am committed to holding up the integrity of the system even when it is unpopular to do so.
In determining my stance, I considered many important facts, including the fact that Dr. Whitaker has a vote – one of only a handful of people who do – over my budget each and every year. I reviewed the facts of the conflict and far from washing my hands, I proactively upheld justice by requesting approval from the circuit court’s chief judge for recusal due to the existing conflict. The judge then appointed an independent prosecutor without a conflict of interest to make a prosecutorial determination and carry out all duties related to the case.
I did so without any consideration of the politics of the matter, and I would do it again. This is what justice demands. Gross misinformation has been spread about political machinations and I appreciate the opportunity to share the facts of this process with the public and to share that as a prosecutor I will continue to stand strong on principle and will not cave under pressure from other elected officials with their own personal interests.
The citizens of Portsmouth can count on me to recuse myself anytime I have a conflict of interest so that a fair and independent prosecutor can be brought in who has the discretion to decline prosecution if no probable cause exists or to prosecute should the facts and the law warrants such action.”
In a separate email Morales responded to several WAVY questions:
Cummings: Who ultimately selects the special prosecutor? Is that done through your office?
Morales: When a conflict arises our office reaches out to the other local Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Offices to request they serve as special prosecutor. If all the local offices (in Hampton Roads) decline, we begin reaching out to offices outside the local area. Once an office agrees to serve, we submit a proposed order to the chief circuit court judge for entry, which the court enters if it agrees a special prosecutor is required, thereby appointing the special prosecutor.
Cummings: During an interview Dr. Whitaker has said that Sheriff abused your office for his political gain. What is your response to his comment?
Morales: That should be picked up from the response in my first email but to make things even clearer: I would never allow Dr. Whitaker, Sheriff Watson or any other elected official to engage in the administration of duties in my office for political gain or any other reason. Any statement to the contrary is incorrect.
Cummings: Considering that these filings and Dr. Whitaker‘s public comments come less than two weeks ahead of election day where you are running for reelection, how do you think this will impact voters?
Morales: I trust the voters of Portsmouth if they are given accurate news and information. The misinformation here is the allegation I colluded with anyone or that I avoided responsibility. Instead, I stepped into what has become messy situation, followed our standard procedure and recused myself precisely so that justice could be done without a hint of prejudice or bias. The voters of Portsmouth deserve fair and impartial justice, not conflicts of interest and squabbling. I was entrusted with this position by the citizens of Portsmouth and I answer to them, not other elected officials. I hope the voters will continue to stand with me on Election Day.
Two recent motions from Whitaker’s attorneys filed with the court ask a judge to throw out the indictments.
One last week claims the grand jury was misled.
“They painted a picture of me as being crooked, and they painted a picture of me as being someone who had received something that they should not have received,” Mark Whitaker said.
The other motion was filed this week claiming there’s a lack of evidence. Two of the witnesses whose names Whitaker is accused of forging have signed affidavits in that motion.
The first person, Caroline Larosiliere who is a dentist in Maryland, is Dr. Whitaker’s sister.
The other witness, Malinda Starkley, is a member and trustee of the church where Whitaker is Assistant Pastor. Both women write that they gave Whitaker permission to use their signatures.
When contacted by phone about the motions, Sheriff Watson told Cummings Tuesday, “They’re grasping at straws because they have no defense.”
“The truth will come out in court,” he said.
10 On Your Side wanted to know if Whitaker’s decision to speak out now was also politically motivated, as both Morales and Watson are running re-election campaigns.
Cummings asked, “Why now? This interview, why not wait until after the election? Is your motivation also politically motivated? Whitaker responded, “I think that we have to be people of conscious and conscious calls us to speak truth and there is never a wrong time to speak truth.”
Dr. Ingrid Whitaker said, “My husband is innocent and I stand by him. I know that he’s innocent and I know that the truth will come out and prevail.”
The trial is expected to begin later this month. Stay with WAVY.com for developments.