PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — The former Portsmouth city attorney, who was fired amid the controversy surrounding the city’s Confederate monument and the aftermath of a destructive protest at the statue, is suing the city mayor for defamation.
It’s the latest development in the city’s plethora of political disputes.
An attorney representing former city attorney and Portsmouth native Solomon Ashby filed the suit in Norfolk Circuit Court Oct. 20 alleging Mayor John Rowe defamed Ashby’s character when he spoke to local news reporters after he was fired.
The lawsuit seeks $1.5 million in compensatory damages and another $500,000 in punitive damages.
Ashby, who served the city for four years, was fired Sept. 8 with a 4-3 vote by City Council. Afterward, Rowe told 10 On Your Side that City Council planned to meet that day to discuss whether to fire both City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton and Ashby, after both had “lost confidence” with the majority of council.
The complaint says Ashby was fired several days after he sent an email relating to whether council should fire the city manager.
Pressure had been building in the community for the council to remove Patton after she placed Police Chief Angela Greene on administrative leave with pay for a 30-day period in early September pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
Greene was put under intense scrutiny after the department charged state Sen. Louise Lucas and other prominent community members in connection with a demonstration at the Portsmouth Confederate monument, in which the historic structure was painted and damaged. However, she also garnered support.
Ultimately Patton resigned ahead of council action. Rowe told 10 On Your Side afterward that the council was being “left in the dark” on major issues. Specifically, Rowe said the council had no knowledge that Patton and Ashby had retained attorneys from Hunton Andrews Kurth when the FBI began investigating the police department.
After Ashby’s termination in an interview, Rowe said in a TV interview with another station that an email sent by Ashby to council days earlier regarding Patton’s employment was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The letter — which was attached to the complaint — detailed why Ashby believed the council shouldn’t fire Patton, saying it “could be construed as an attempt to interfere in the day-to-day operations of the city and the employment status of Dr. Patton’s subordinate, Chief Greene.”
He also warned a public vote or motion to take action against Patton could result in a citizen going to a magistrate and filing a charge against council members who voted to dismiss her.
Several weeks prior, a Portsmouth resident filed a charge against Portsmouth Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke, alleging she violated a section in the city code when she called for chief Greene to be fired.
“The Portsmouth City Council should take no action as it concerns Dr. Patton,” Ashby said. “If I can’t convince you to cease from materially furthering a course of conduct to take action against Dr. Patton, I may have to withdraw from representing the City.”
Rowe said to media outlet that the advice in the email was “not very balanced and good advice.”
“I have never seen an opinion like that before. It just did not make any sense and it doesn’t make any sense now,” Rowe said. “Culminating in an opinion that you can’t fire the city manager, that the city manager is bulletproof, and that just does not hold up.”
Ashby’s attorney, Christian Connell asserts that the statement was false and Rowe “knew that such statement was false when he made it.”
The suit says that, contractually, the city attorney can only be fired for cause if he committed a “material breach” of his responsibilities. It also claims Rowe’s statements to the media “imputed to Ashby an unfitness to perform the duties of his position with the City of Portsmouth or a want of
integrity to discharge such duties; and/or … prejudiced Ashby in his occupation, profession or trade.”
“As a result of the defamatory statements by the defendant, Ashby has suffered injury and harm to both his good personal reputation and his good business reputation, as well as great humiliation, shame, vilification, exposure to public infamy, scandal, and disgrace,” the complaint reads.
Rowe said he had “no comment” when reached Wednesday evening by 10 On Your Side.
This isn’t the first time this year one of Ashby’s opinions has been publicly scolded. In March, Portsmouth Circuit Court Judge Johnny Morrison wasn’t amused when he learned Ashby had advised City Council members that they didn’t have to make the repairs he ordered be made to the city jail building if the council voted to close the jail.
“What else did you think it was gonna be used for? A daycare center?” an exasperated Morrison said to Ashby.
This also isn’t the first time fired appointed officials in the city have turned around and sued their former bosses. Within the last three years former City Auditor Andre Thomas won a defamation lawsuit against Councilwoman Elizabeth Psimas and settled another one against Councilman Bill Moody.
Ashby’s complaint demands a trial by jury.