PORTSMOUTH — Former Portsmouth City Manager Angel Jones levied explosive corruption allegations against the four City Council members who fired her in a lawsuit against the city Monday, claiming several of them received bribes in connection with job openings or city projects that would require a council vote.
Jones, who was fired abruptly with a 4-3 vote of the City Council in May, alleges in her lawsuit that Vice Mayor De’Andre Barnes and councilmen Paul Battle and Christopher Woodard Jr. received bribes from former councilman Danny Meeks to support hiring him for the then-vacant city manager position.
Jones also alleges that Barnes accepted a $14,000 bribe — and an offer to pay off an estimated $25,000 in delinquent child support payments — from a Portsmouth resident, Eugene Swinson, for Barnes’ support in getting Swinson’s sister, Sunshine Swinson, hired as city manager.
In January 2021, the City Council voted to appoint Meeks as city manager but respinded after deciding to open the application process. Sunshine Swinson’s name surfaced publicly as a top candidate in March 2021.
Councilman Mark Whitaker was not named in either of those allegations, but Jones alleged in her lawsuit that Whitaker was involved in a plan to plant someone in the city attorney post so that person could settle a lawsuit Whitaker has against the city, with some of the proceeds shared with Barnes and Woodard.
Both Woodard and Whitaker declined to comment. Battle, Barnes, Eugene and Sunshine Swinson could not be reached.
Reached by phone Monday, Meeks denied the claims.
In a Facebook video posted Friday evening, Barnes called the complaint “a book of fairy tales” that’s “written like a tabloid.” He likened it to Mayor Shannon Glover’s attempt in June to seek criminal charges against Barnes and Whitaker, which a local magistrate rejected on the grounds that it lacked evidence.
“It’s a bunch of rumors, and it’s literally ‘he said, she said,'” Barnes said in the video.
Jones also asserts in the lawsuit she was wrongfully terminated because she refused to participate in the illegal activities and that because she was given no notice, her contract was breached.
She is asking for $5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. She also offered a second option in the lawsuit: The city could pay her two years’ worth of her salary and benefits and the city officials she’s alleging committed illegal acts could resign immediately and never seek public office again.
Jones’ attorneys, including former Portsmouth councilman and state lawmaker Stephen Heretick, sought a settlement from the city but filed the lawsuit when the city asked for more time to respond.
City Attorney Lavonda Graham-Williams told The Pilot the city could not comment on the pending litigation.
The lawsuit states that Jones informed the Portsmouth Police Department, the Virginia State Police and the FBI that they believed Barnes, Whitaker, Woodard and Battle were perpetrating “major crimes involving public corruption.”
The Virginian-Pilot asked Portsmouth police if and when such claims were reported. City spokesperson Dana Woodson responded in a phone call that the city had no comment.
The FBI also declined to comment. The state police did not respond.
The lawsuit states that, shortly after Jones was sworn into office in April 2021, then Deputy City Manager LaVoris Pace told her that Barnes previously accepted the $14,000 bribe from Eugene Swinson so that Barnes would support Sunshine Swinson’s hiring as city manager. Eugene Swinson leads Big HOMIES, a Portsmouth grassroots organization that works with youth, and the complaint states Barnes is a board member.
Pace, who declined to comment Monday, reported that Barnes withdrew his support for Meeks to instead support Sunshine Swinson, according to the lawsuit.
Then-Economic Development Director Robert Moore, who resigned in June, reportedly told Jones in May 2021 that Barnes approached “the representatives from Rivers Casino,” which is developing a casino in Portsmouth, demanding a “donation” to his youth sports program, Portsmouth City Cowboys. The casino declined, according to the law suit.
Moore could not be reached for comment.
In his Facebook video, Barnes also said the lawsuit was politically motivated, particularly by the Martin Luther King Jr. Steering Committee, a prominent political organization in Portsmouth, and the nonprofit Portsmouth Partnership. Barnes said both organizations “have been running the city and destroying the city for years.”
He denied the claims about being behind on his child support and receiving bribes to pay it.
“Since 2007, I have never, ever been behind in my child support,” Barnes said in the video.
It is not clear when Jones reported the claims to law enforcement agencies, but the complaint details a January 2022 discussion in which then-Police Chief Renado Prince briefed Jones about a Facebook video from a citizen saying Barnes had been “attempting to extort money in the form of kickbacks from citizens who were applying” for the city’s pandemic stimulus money.
Jones told Prince that Barnes had previously asked her to increase the amount of American Rescue Plan Act funding to $30,000 for all of the nonprofits listed as partners with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. The lawsuit states that when Barnes asked for the additional funding, she did not know his youth sports organization was one of the partners that would receive money and he did not disclose that. It’s not clear in the complaint how she responded to his request.
Reached by phone Monday, Prince said he had no comment.
The lawsuit states that in December 2021, Battle told Jones that “Whitaker and the boys are hungry for money, and the ARPA funds are driving them crazy.”
In that same conversation, Battle allegedly told Jones that Whitaker, Woodard and Barnes wanted to hire someone named Herman Smith as the city attorney so he could settle Whitaker’s lawsuit against the city, with some of the proceeds then shared with Barnes and Woodard. Battle said he declined to be involved in the sharing of funds because he “did not need the money,” according to Jones’ lawsuit.
Battle also allegedly told Jones that he, Whitaker, Woodard and Barnes had agreed to pay Smith an annual salary of $195,000 while Smith continued to personally represent Barnes in child support cases.
In the lawsuit, Jones alleges Battle concluded the meeting by telling her, “I do not play around on my wife, but if I were single, you would be my type.” Jones was shocked and immediately shared her concerns with then-Deputy City Manager Mimi Terry, the lawsuit states.
Jones contends in the lawsuit that she reminded council members numerous times that interfering with the management of city employees was a violation of the city’s charter. She alleges Battle pressured her to try offering Pace more pay in an effort to prevent him from accepting a higher-paying job in Norfolk. Jones said Pace was already at the top of the city’s pay scale and that she couldn’t give him any more, the lawsuit details.
In August 2021, Whitaker summoned Jones for a private meeting at New Bethel Baptist Church, where he “chastised” her for “allowing” Pace to leave the city and not raising his pay, adding that “this type of thing” had been done in the past, the lawsuit alleges.
During a City Council meeting in June, Whitaker said Jones not doing enough to retain Pace was one of the reasons he voted to fire her.
Jones alleges she received pressure from Battle and Whitaker to fire Prince, with Battle telling her to replace him with Portsmouth Undersheriff Marvin Waters and Whitaker approaching Portsmouth Sheriff Michael Moore about the position.
She also states that Barnes approached Pace in or before May to see if he’d be interested in becoming the new city manager, suggesting he discuss it with Whitaker. Pace met with Whitaker at his church, where Whitaker offered Pace the job but Pace declined the offer, the lawsuit alleges.
In February 2022, Whitaker Jones told his support was waning because she attended a press conference with Glover that the majority of council members didn’t support the lawsuit states. Jones Whitaker allegedly told her she “needs to realize who’s in charge.”
Whitaker then allegedly sent an email to Jones to inform her of a City Council meeting that he, Barnes, Battle and Woodard called on March 1 to criticize both her and Prince’s performances.
In the lawsuit, Jones claims Whitaker invited her to his church, where he demanded she resign because he had “enough votes to terminate her employment.” It’s not clear when the meeting allegedly took place, but the lawsuit states she received the invitation from Whitaker in a phone call on May 19, 2022.
Also in May, councilwoman Lisa Lucas-Burke sent an email to Jones with concerns about a “pay-to-play” environment in Portsmouth after learning of allegations that Barnes and Woodard were requiring residents to pay them for information or assistance on matters that are within their duties as City Council members.
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Another instance of interfering with day-to-day city functions, according to Jones: Battle had private meetings with Moore in which specific land deals were discussed but not reported to Jones.
The complaint also states then-Interim City Attorney Burle Stromberg told Jones he suspected one or more council members tried to convince someone who had a pending legal claim against the city to request a larger settlement.
Reached by phone Monday, Stromberg said he could not comment.
The lawsuit alleges local developer Alvin Keels submitted to the city in November 2021 an unsolicited proposal for $300 million to develop Portsmouth’s waterfront. Jones accepted it on merit and then denied it after allegedly learning that Barnes solicited Keels for a donation in exchange for his “yes” vote on Keels’ use permit.
Reached by phone Monday, Keels said the claim was “totally false” and “reckless.”
Jones sought medical treatment due to the emotional distress caused by Whitaker, Barnes, Battle and Woodard, the lawsuit states.
Natalie Anderson, 757-732-1133, [email protected]