Jason Kessler chastised reporters on his way into court today and spoke disrespectfully to the special prosecutor who requested that Kessler’s petition to remove Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy from office be dismissed because it lacked enough signatures.
Kessler, who burst into the local spotlight after he discovered unsavory tweets Bellamy made before taking office in 2016, collected 597 signatures on a petition and cited misuse of office in calling for Bellamy’s removal.
According to the special prosecutor, Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Doucette, Kessler needed 1,580 signatures. The Code of Virginia says a petitioner must obtain signatures from registered voters equal to 10 percent of the “total number of votes cast” in the election of the official—15,798 in the 2015 City Council election.
In that contest, voters could cast three votes for the three open seats on council, and while that is an unusual situation, said Doucette, the code clearly states “total number of votes cast.” At a February 16 press conference, Kessler said he had been told by his legal team, which he refused to identify, that he only needed 527 signers.
“The number is insufficient,” said Doucette in court. “We move to nonsuit.” The court dismissed the petition without prejudice, which means Kessler can refile—but he must start over again with the signatures, explained Doucette.
“The fact that you disagree with a particular vote is not grounds for dismissal,” said Doucette outside the Charlottesville Circuit Court. Bellamy had called for the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee last March, and was one of three councilors who voted to get rid of the statue February 6. Kessler had alleged that was evidence of Bellamy’s “black supremacy.”
“You’ve got to show a link between the misconduct and the misuse of office,” said Doucette.
The prosecutor said Kessler “was upset” when he came into courtroom and called him “‘Doucette’ in a rude fashion,” said the attorney. “I said, ‘It’s Mr. Doucette.” Doucette said Kessler calmed down, but added, “I’m not going to put up with disrespect.”
Earlier on his way into the courthouse, Kessler denounced NBC29 reporter Henry Graff for calling him a “white nationalist” on the air, and added that Graff was a “piece of shit pretty boy.”
Kessler also expressed his displeasure with this reporter, whom he called a “lazy journalist” for naming Pepe the frog as the mascot for his newly formed, Western civilization-protecting Unity and Security for America. The organization has a lion in its logo, Kessler pointed out, but its website includes a frog with the message, “Kek is with us,” and Kessler has publicly proclaimed his fondness for Pepe, which has been appropriated as a symbol of hate by alt-right groups.
Kessler was in court last week for an assault complaint he made against Crozet resident James Justin Taylor. The prosecutor dismissed that charge with prejudice, which means it cannot be refiled, because video evidence did not support Kessler’s allegation that Taylor assaulted him. Kessler goes to court April 6 to face his own assault charge for allegedly punching Taylor in the face while he was collecting signatures for the petition.
After the hearing, Bellamy said, “I’m glad the court decided the way it did,” and that he was eager to get back to the city’s business.
“I have no ill will toward Mr. Kessler,” he said. “This is a democracy and you’re allowed to do that.”
Some have alleged Kessler’s petition was racially motivated. Bellamy, who is City Council’s only black member, said, “I’m not going to go into why someone did that.”
His attorney was less circumspect.
“I do believe the petition was racially motivated,” said Pam Starsia. “Jason Kessler is a virulent racist and misogynist” who advocates for policies that harm people of color and those in the LGBT community, she said.
“I would describe this as a modern day lynching,” she continued, pointing out that Kessler had no problem with the two white councilors who voted to remove the statue.
Kessler said he disagreed with Doucette’s decision, but would not try to refile the petition. “I’m ready to move on.” He said he plans to investigate other city councilors.
City Council regular John Heyden, who attended Kessler’s press conference last month, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for “any complaints about Wes Bellamy’s conduct made by any city employees or citizens up to the present time.”
The city estimated it would cost at least $1,200 to search the records of its 900 employees, which Kessler blasted as the city trying to “obstruct” his investigation of other councilors. “That is a ridiculous charge,” he said.
Starsia said the FOIA was a “fishing expedition” and Kessler’s USA organization had already e-mailed every city employee soliciting complaints against Bellamy. “They do not have anything,” she said.
The attorney said she would be seeking legal fees from the city because state statute prevents Bellamy from collecting fees from petitioner Kessler in a nonsuit. Bellamy resigned from his job as an Albemarle High teacher after the tweets were revealed.
“The petition,” said Starsia, “was a frivolous complaint against Mr. Bellamy.”