Delegate Jailbird: Joe Morrissey attempts to make history

Scandal-plagued Democratic Delegate Joe Morrissey has made a bold move in an effort to keep his seat despite copping to a misdemeanor sex offense involving a minor. Photo: Scott Elmquist Scandal-plagued Democratic Delegate Joe Morrissey has made a bold move in an effort to keep his seat despite copping to a misdemeanor sex offense involving a minor. Photo: Scott Elmquist

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, bi-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.

We are not normally overflowing with good cheer this time of year, for one simple reason: Nothing ever freakin’ happens! We’re usually stuck covering something indescribably dull, like Governor Terry McAuliffe’s latest budget proposal. (Did you know that he’s still in favor of expanding Medicaid?) Luckily for us, this year the political scandal fairy decided to put a little something extra in our Yuletide stocking: the ongoing trials (and conviction, and subsequent shenanigans) of Democratic Delegate Joe Morrissey.

Morrissey, you might recall, is the feisty lawyer-legislator from Henrico with a long history of antagonistic behavior (he once, for instance, punched a defense attorney in the face during a drug trial). His boorishness, however, went from irritating to criminal last August, when police were called to his home around midnight and found the 56-year-old lawmaker alone with a 17-year-old girl who worked as a receptionist at his legal firm.

The fallout from that fateful evening has been long and convoluted, with both Morrissey and his former employee (now pregnant, according to one of her sisters) insisting that nothing untoward happened, and that the copious pieces of evidence found on their respective cell phones (including texts describing at least one sexual encounter and, according to detectives, 15 nude photos of the underage girl) were planted by a malicious hacker.

The legal case came to a close on December 12, just days before Morrissey was scheduled to go on trial for taking indecent liberties with a minor and possession of child pornography. Morrissey entered a so-called “Alford plea,” which requires him to admit that there is enough evidence to convict him on a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, while not actually acknowledging that he broke the law. The presiding judge sentenced him to one year in jail, with six months suspended, and granted him a work-release provision that would allow Morrissey to continue legislating even as he wore a tracking bracelet on his ankle and spent his nights in a prison cell.

As you might imagine, this set off a firestorm in Richmond, with politicians from both parties (including McAuliffe) calling loudly for Morrissey’s resignation. He initially refused. Then, in a brilliantly devious bit of political jujitsu, Morrissey held a press conference in which he revealed that he had just submitted his resignation, to take effect on January 13, the same day that a special election would be held to replace him. And oh, by the way, he would also be running in that special election.

“Right now there is a bit of a cloud or a taint over my seat,” he told reporters, immediately winning the unintentional double entendre of the year award. “Folks from the governor’s office on down have called for my resignation. And I have given and done everything that my detractors have said.”

Henrico County Sheriff Michael Wade has since revoked Morrissey’s work-release privileges, and Dems say they’ll pick a nominee to replace him in the special election. Morrissey could still run as an independent.

If he does that, he’ll be betting that he can win a low-turnout election on name recognition alone, at which point his colleagues in the General Assembly will be faced with the distasteful task of expelling a House member over a misdemeanor—something that has not happened once in Virginia’s long political history.

Have we mentioned that this might just be the best holiday gift ever?

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