The members of the Roanoke City Council made a generous suggestion to embattled councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr. at their Oct. 18 meeting: take a leave of absence from council duties until your legal issues are resolved.
Jeffrey awaits trial on four felony charges: two counts of embezzlement and two counts of obtaining money under false pretenses.
Let’s not mince words: Jeffrey should resign. Given the nature of the charges against him, his continued presence on the council undermines the credibility of a government body responsible for managing our city’s fiscal fortunes.
Other members of Roanoke’s council have stepped down for reasons far less dire. In 2018, John Garland chose to resign as he acknowledged a conflict of interest between his development business and the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
In 2020, Djuna Osborne resigned because family and work obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic were interfering with her ability to deal with council responsibilities.
In fairness, Jeffrey’s colleagues did not ask him to resign. They also stated they lack the legal authority to force him to step away. The resolution they passed, requesting he take a leave of absence, acknowledged the all-important presumption of innocence, the foundation of our country’s system of justice, and explicitly made room for Jeffrey’s return should the case resolve in his favor.
The resolution proffered that Jeffrey’s continued presence “inhibits the effectiveness of council by distracting the public from the business of the city” — quite the understatement. It is an embarrassment to the city.
The council’s offer would seem almost generous to a fault, granting Jeffrey months free of council obligations to work on his defense, implying he’d be welcome back on acquittal. A better plan: resign, and if acquitted, he could seek one of the seats on the November 2022 ballot. Let the city’s voters decide.
Yet even before a vote had been taken on the resolution, Jeffrey dismissed the request. Elected officials “have to sometimes do things political to show face in expressing their concerns with the public,” he said, dismissing this reasonable request from all six of his fellow council members as insincere and done purely for show.
Jeffrey did at least recuse himself from the vote on the resolution, which passed 6-0.
“I am innocent of these charges,” he said. “My intent is to stay in office. My intent is to do what I was elected to do by this city, and I will do that till my court date, where I will be vindicated from these charges.”
Jeffrey spoke as if voters in 2020 elected him with a mandate that requires him to cling to his office by his fingernails until crucial ordinances get passed.
The word “hubris” comes to mind — a word that comes to us from the tragic plays of ancient Greece, denoting excessive pride that brings about downfall.
Jeffrey was the second highest vote getter in the November council election. However, he won the nomination to run in an early-in-the-pandemic virtual process conducted by the Roanoke City Democratic Committee with limited participation.
Let’s recap what we currently know.
In July, a Roanoke grand jury indicted Jeffrey on two charges alleging that he embezzled money from the Northwest Neighborhood Environmental Organization, a nonprofit formed in 1980 that’s dedicated to housing improvements in northwest Roanoke. The indictments allege that the thefts took place between May 1, 2020, and April 30, 2021, which overlaps with Jeffrey’s term on council.
In search warrants, a Roanoke police investigator alleged that while working as a property manager, Jeffrey made unauthorized withdrawals of at least $50,000, and further alleged that at least some of those funds were used for personal expenses. The initial complaint was filed with police by NNEO board president Carroll Carter.
Another search warrant disclosed that Jeffrey’s city-issued iPad was seized in the investigation, but “it was remotely wiped,” with a city technology department employee telling police that only Jeffrey had the access required to erase the iPad’s contents. No charge has been filed in connection with that.
This month, a grand jury handed down more indictments, two felony counts of obtaining money by false pretenses from the city’s Economic Development Authority, a body that answers to the very city council Jeffrey sits on. The time periods for these indictments fall after Jeffrey was elected but before he took office.
Further court papers show these newer charges are connected to an allegation that Jeffrey made false claims about losses suffered by his publishing business in order to receive a $7,500 Roanoke Small Business Recovery Grant. Police asserted that Jeffrey claimed five full-time employees when in fact all the employees of Jeffrey Media and ColorsVA Magazine were contract workers.
As he did during the Oct. 18 council meeting, Jeffrey has emphatically proclaimed his innocence.
Yet the heightened scrutiny spurred by these charges has unearthed a problematic business history dating back before Jeffrey moved back to Roanoke from the West Coast.
In fact, an April 23, 2018, Letter to the Editor published in these pages, signed by six former business associates of Jeffrey’s who worked for ColorsVA, tried to warn the Roanoke City Democratic Committee that Jeffrey was unsuitable to be a council candidate.
Jeffrey’s trial is scheduled to start March 14, for now. As anyone familiar with the workings of the courts knows, many more delays are possible.
In the meantime, questions from reporters aren’t going to stop, nor should they.
By the way, in June, the NNEO filed an eviction lawsuit against Jeffrey. The lawsuit was dismissed the next month in Roanoke General District Court. Jeffrey’s lawyer in that case, longtime Roanoke attorney Melvin Hill, is running as a Democrat for the office of commonwealth’s attorney, challenging 11-term incumbent Donald Caldwell.
This choice to run for public office has also brought about intense scrutiny of Hill’s history of tax delinquency solved via bankruptcy declaration. The scrutiny surely could have been anticipated by the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, having heard about these exact same issues when Hill ran in 2017.