Friends and associates of Roanoke Councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr. are struggling to square the felony embezzlement charges he faces with their impression of Jeffrey as a successful magazine publisher and earnest community servant.
But Jeffrey’s indictment a little over five weeks ago is not the first legal or financial accusation he has faced — it’s the only serious incident in the Roanoke area. He was involved in two misdemeanor criminal cases, several lawsuits intended to force him to pay debts and a multimillion dollar personal bankruptcy during the final six of 23 years he lived on the West Coast, court records show.
Included in the people whom Jeffrey or his company owed money were employees of his magazine, and even rapper Young MC.
Jeffrey, an advocate for lifting up minority communities, is now accused of embezzling money from the Northwest Neighborhood Environmental Organization, a nonprofit in Northwest Roanoke, which is 69% African American. The indictment covers a span of time from the first few months of his successful campaign for city council last year until several months after he took office in January. His mother, Evangeline Jeffrey, was until a few months ago an NNEO board member.
The charges “just shocked me. That’s not the person I know,” said Sharon Robinson, youth director at Paradise Cathedral church in Roanoke and a driver for Lyft.
Jordan Bell, a city schools employee and community volunteer, said news of the charges left him “a little bit blown away.” Mayor Sherman Lea said he was “a little bit stunned.”
A trial has been scheduled for Oct. 25. Jeffrey’s lawyer, Jonathan Kurtin, said he believes Jeffrey will be found not guilty. Kurtin said Jeffrey had no comment for this story. Neither man responded to written questions.
Jeffrey continues his council duties, for which the annual compensation is $23,000.
Jeffrey, 52, was raised in Roanoke, the son of civil rights activists, and graduated from William Fleming High School. He earned a marketing degree from Hampton University, a highly ranked, historically black private college. Within a few months of college graduation in 1991 he started working at The Seattle Times, the largest newspaper in the Pacific Northwest. He oversaw several production departments and later entered a management development program that trained him in a variety of business disciplines including advertising, operations and information systems, according to an autobiographical sketch in his Roanoke magazine and his LinkedIn profile.
The program entitled him to study management for several months at the journalism school at Northwestern University near Chicago and to serve as an executive in residence at The Washington Post, his profile said.
He left after nine years at the Seattle newspaper and started the magazine ColorsNW in 2001 to tell stories about people of color that seldom appeared in the newspaper, his bio said. The magazine, which won many awards, “was a trailblazer in terms of dedicating its pages to profiling and elevating the voices of communities of color in Seattle,” said A.V. Crofts, ColorsNW’s food editor from 2005 to 2008, in an email.
The Puget Sound Business Journal reported that, when ColorsNW turned five years old in 2006, it had a free circulation of 25,000 monthly and had just won a dozen awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.
ColorsNW was in business for nearly 10 years.
A domestic issue and bankruptcy
During the Seattle magazine’s lifespan, Jeffrey was in a 13-year marriage to Minty LongEarth, formerly Minty Jeffrey, who described herself in public statements as co-founder of the magazine. She could not be reached for comment for this story.
In March 2009, after the couple separated, she made a statement to police that said Jeffrey “shoved” her and “threw her onto the floor,” according to a report by the Des Moines, Washington, police department, a copy of which was obtained by The Roanoke Times. She gave a subsequent recorded statement that also said he “hit” her, the report said. She complained of pain but the officer saw no injury, the report said.
When the case went to court, but before a determination of guilt, a judge directed Jeffrey to attend a “victims panel,” according to a case docket maintained by the Des Moines Municipal Court, a copy of which was obtained by The Roanoke Times. A victims panel is two-hour class during which victims and perpetrators of crime tell their stories and lessons learned, said Melissa Patrick, a court clerk’s office staff member. Jeffrey was also directed to comply with all criminal laws and not possess a firearm for a year and pay a $100 monitoring fee.
About a year later, the judge found Jeffrey had complied with the court’s directives and dismissed a misdemeanor charge of assault in the fourth degree without a conviction, the docket said.
Jeffrey, in a brief recent interview, denied the allegation. “I never assaulted my ex-wife,” he said. “I never touched my ex-wife. I don’t do that to women. I don’t do that to people.”
The next year, the couple divorced, each of them filed for bankruptcy and the magazine ceased publication, court records show.
Jeffrey disclosed owning three homes, one each for he and his then-wife in the Washington area and one in Roanoke that belonged to his mother, with a total value of $800,000, his Chapter 7 filing said.
He owed nearly $2.19 million, the filing said. But there was a caveat: each asset and liability belonged to the “marital community” of he and his wife. They were not yet divorced when he filed in the bankruptcy court for the Western District of Washington.
In brief remarks on a portion of his bankruptcy filing in 2018, he said part of the debt was related to dissolving his business in Seattle. He said a debt to the Internal Revenue Service stemmed from failing to collect and remit enough payroll taxes from employees.
In its final ruling, the court discharged unsecured debts of $1.1 million owed to a variety of lenders, health care providers, utility companies, individuals and miscellaneous parties including a lawyer and a jewelry store, meaning he no longer had any personal liability to pay them, court papers said. Secured creditors were permitted to foreclose on real estate collateral, including his and his then-wife’s homes, court papers said.
After the case concluded, Jeffrey had $16,790 to his name representing the value of household goods and furnishings, clothes and watches and $10,000 in value related to his mother’s house, court papers said.
During the time Jeffrey filed bankruptcy, many other people were quaking under the effects of the Great Recession, a law professor said. “This guy looks like he got caught in the Great Recession and uses the bankruptcy system to get a fresh start,” said Nate Oman, a professor at the College of William and Mary Law School, who reviewed Jeffrey’s filing at the request of The Roanoke Times.
During the 2007-09 recession, many people borrowed large amounts of money against appreciating real estate, Oman said. “Then they got hit by a double whammy in the recession, because real estate prices plummeted, which means their assets were worth less, and then there was a massive recession, which meant a lot of people had less income.”
A few of the individuals or companies to whom Jeffrey owed money had previously filed lawsuits with more details of the debt.
One was Crofts, the food editor. She filed a lawsuit seeking payment of wages against Jeffrey and ColorsNW in 2009 and won a judgment in her favor, court records showed. In 2019, a court renewed the judgment and set the amount owed as $15,965, court records showed. “I was one of a number of contributors who were owed wages for submitted work. More than a decade and one lawsuit later, I’m still waiting,” Crofts told The Roanoke Times.
Moneytree, a Washington-based provider of payday loans and other retail financial services, sued Colors NW, Jeffrey and his then-wife 11 months before Jeffrey’s bankruptcy, a court record showed. Moneytree demanded repayment of a $35,000 loan and reimbursement for a $13,500 check Jeffrey cashed that the magazine’s bank would not honor, the suit said.
Asked about this debt, Jeffrey told The Roanoke Times: “I went through the bankruptcy, everything is cleared.”
Another debt, this one for $40,000, was owed to Young MC, a British-born rapper whose hits included “Bust a Move.” He was popular in the United States from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.
“I really didn’t have much to do with Robert Jeffrey. His ex-wife is like a little sister to me,” he told The Roanoke Times.
When the couple started the magazine ColorsNW, “she asked me to invest in it,” he said.
Jeffrey, in a brief interview, acknowledged knowing of Young but described him as “not an investor.”
A $40,000 debt to Marvin Young, the star’s name before his took a stage name, appeared in both Jeffrey’s bankruptcy filing and in his former wife’s filing.
In the wake of the magazine’s end, Jeffrey operated a media company that provided products and services to “multicultural markets” and he ran an employment-related website, his bio said.
In 2014, Tukwila, Washington, police received a complaint about a credit card account being opened in an individual’s name without authorization. The credit card company sent the victim account materials that included “a copy of a cashed check made out to Robert Jeffrey Jr.,” according to the police report, a copy of which was obtained by The Roanoke Times.
Authorities charged Jeffrey with third degree theft and making a false representation concerning credit, court records showed. Jeffrey said in June that he was not the defendant but later confirmed he was. He then said he did not commit the crime but accepted responsibility for it. He declined to comment when asked if somebody else committed the crime.
Aaron Walls, the prosecutor, said by email that he couldn’t recall anyone else being charged.
When the case went to court, but before a determination of guilt, a judge ordered Jeffrey to pay $311 in restitution and perform 20 hours of community service. After he complied, the case was dismissed without a conviction, court records showed.
More debts along with an entry into politics
Later in 2014, Jeffrey returned to Roanoke. In 2015, he established the Roanoke version of Colors and said it would have 250 distribution points.
Debts from his former business continued to be an issue. Big Sky Commerce, a provider of merchant services, sued ColorsNW, Jeffrey and his then-wife for $9,700. The company said the magazine and Jeffrey owed the money for services rendered while the Seattle magazine was in business.
In 2016, Jeffrey won a Citizen of the Year Award from NAACP for his business acumen.
In July, Virginia’s child-support enforcement office filed a lien seeking payment of $3,612 in back child support dating to 2010, court records show.
Around 3 a.m. on July 23, 2017, a Roanoke police officer saw a vehicle on southbound Williamson Road screech to a stop at Thurston Avenue. The vehicle backed up, made a wide left turn, drove the wrong way on Thurston, swerved and nearly went off the road, the police report said.
Contacted by an officer a short time later, the driver, later identified as Jeffrey, smelled of alcoholic beverages and was unable to recite the alphabet despite three tries, the report said. Because Jeffrey wouldn’t complete field sobriety tests, he was charged with reckless driving rather than driving under the influence, the report said.
In late 2017, Jeffrey, a Democrat, was the first person to announce a candidacy for the May 2018 Roanoke City Council election.
State Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, introduced Jeffrey at his first campaign event. Jeffrey won the Democratic nomination. Hurst did not respond to multiple phone messages seeking comment on Jeffrey.
During the campaign, Jeffrey pleaded no contest to the reckless driving charge and was convicted by a judge and fined $100, court records show.
In the runup to the election, Jeffrey described himself as a successful small-scale entrepreneur and role model for younger African-American men. “I hope … I can exemplify the work of what black men should be doing,” he said in a Roanoke Times interview.
He placed fourth in a race among seven candidates for three seats. He nonetheless made a strong showing, coming in only 325 votes behind incumbent Bill Bestpitch. After his narrow loss, Jeffrey applied in January 2019 to be appointed to a vacancy on city council created by the resignation of John Garland. The council appointed Trish White-Boyd, who was reelected last year.
Meanwhile, in a March 2019 lawsuit, Progress Printing of Lynchburg sued Jeffrey Media, Jeffrey’s Virginia magazine company, to collect $10,338 for printing services. The company won a judgment but says it still has not been paid $8,720 of the debt.
“Magazines were printed, delivered, and never paid for,” company President Mike Thornton said by email last month.
Jeffrey declined to comment in June when asked about the Progress Printing matter.
In March 2020, Jeffrey registered to compete in the November 2020 election. By this time he was vice chair of the city Democratic Committee. He said his financial problems had been resolved. “Moving Forward Together” was his campaign theme.
People who had worked for his magazine submitted an editorial to The Roanoke Times that called Jeffrey unsuited for office. In November, voters turned out strongly in favor of Jeffrey. Jeffrey was the second-leading vote getter with 13,188 votes, or 14.2%, and beat five candidates.
In 2020, his campaign received a total of $39,410 and spent $37,287, campaign finance reports show. Of the total receipts, Jeffrey lent the campaign $15,500, while the campaign received 98 cash contributions totaling $15,293 and in-kind contributions of $8,617.
He took office in January.
The next month, Virginia authorities filed a document in Roanoke court saying back child support had been paid in full.
Police searched Jeffrey’s home and business on June 28, court records show.
Jeffrey was asked about his financial past a few days later.
“My bills are paid. I’m fine, he told The Roanoke Times.
Praise and criticism
Expressions of disbelief followed the announcement of the NNEO embezzlement charges in early July.
Johnny Williams, 54, of Roanoke, who worked on Jeffrey’s campaign, said he is urging people to avoid forming an opinion of the charges until the facts come out at the trial. Deep down, Jeffrey is a “good guy that wants to do great things,” he said.
Robinson, the church youth worker and Lyft driver, told of meeting Jeffrey for the first time when she went to pick up a Lyft customer. It turned out to be a homeless family for whom Jeffrey had arranged lodging at a motel, she said.
“Robert has accomplished quite a bit in his efforts around the city,” said Bishop J.L. Jackson, pastor at Refreshing Church in Roanoke. “He is certainly a man with the community in his heart as he’s partnered with programs, organizations, individuals for collaborative effort. His magazine that goes out, the Colors magazine, has been one of the great opportunities for individuals to be celebrated and information to be disseminated. And, his heart is to do good.”
Bell, the community volunteer, who writes for ColorsVa, described Jeffrey’s rise to vice chair of the city Democratic Committee and then his election to office as significant.
“As a Black man in Roanoke, he’s really accomplished some political things that a lot of people have not accomplished that have strived to do that,” Bell said.
Jeffrey also sits on a variety of boards, including that of Goodwill, which he chairs.
Fellow council members said privately they wish to leave the matter to the courts and have offered few public comments. But the matter came up during a public comment session last month when a speaker urged council members to convince Jeffrey to resign from office. “This matter certainly casts a shadow over his character, public image and judgment while attending and it does relate to council’s work,” said David Garland, a Roanoke attorney and former city magistrate.
City Manager Bob Cowell said the only possible business that could involve the city and NNEO in the future would be if the NNEO competed for or received approval for city grants.
Garland urged the council to limit Jeffrey’s authority while the charges are pending. Cowell said no such restriction is necessary because no individual council member possesses authority to act on behalf of the city. Only the council can act on the city’s behalf, Cowell said.
If he is convicted and exhausts all appeals, Jeffrey would forfeit his office.