Joseph D. Morrissey, the Virginia state lawmaker accused of having sex with a minor, stood before television cameras last week and recited from a key piece of prosecutors’ evidence: a text message allegedly sent by a 17-year-old in which she announced their tryst.
Morrissey’s rendition included the emphatic reading of a profanity from the message, prompting one station to interrupt live coverage just after he denied the charges and claimed that the text had been planted by a hacker.
The high drama set off another round of tremors in Virginia politics, a traditionally staid arena already reeling from a bitter feud over the budget, an unexpected federal investigation into a lawmaker’s resignation and the impending corruption trial of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R).
Morrissey, 56, a Democrat representing parts of Richmond and Henrico and Charles counties in his fourth term in the House of Delegates, is a lawyer whose career has been defined by headline-churning debacles stretching back to the 1980s, just before his election as Richmond’s chief prosecutor.
His litany of transgressions includes a courthouse fistfight, fraud, and berating and threatening judges. Legal panels have described him as unethical, unprofessional and deceitful. His law license has been suspended and revoked, and he has been banned from practicing as an attorney.
Yet, Morrissey has managed to win five elections, and he said he may run a sixth time if he beats the current charges against him, which include possession and distribution of child pornography and taking indecent liberties with a minor.
“I am a fighter for the people,” Morrissey said in a telephone interview, by way of explaining his success.
In truth, Morrissey has spent much of his career fighting for himself.
Within Virginia’s power circles, he has been viewed more as an oddity than emblematic of the way politics works. But his indictment has brought new, unwanted attention to the commonwealth’s flourishing list of political scandals and has shaken its image as a state lacking the tawdry tales so common elsewhere.
As terrain for salacious political scandal, Virginia has never achieved the bloated notoriety of states such as Louisiana, Illinois or New Jersey, where citizens have grown accustomed to a ritual parade of public officials in handcuffs.
Yet the commonwealth has not been entirely devoid of intrigue, perhaps beginning with the early 19th-century revelations that President Thomas Jefferson was sleeping with his slave, Sally Hemings.
More recently, Virginia has hosted a string of high-profile corruption cases, including the 2011 bribery and extortion conviction of former Republican state delegate Philip A. Hamilton, who is serving a 91/2-year federal prison term. Three years later, McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were indicted for allegedly taking at least $165,000 in illegal gifts and loans — a case set for a July 28 trial.
FBI agents last month opened an investigation after the surprise resignation of state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell), whose exit gave Republicans control of the Senate. Democrats accused the GOP of offering jobs to Puckett and his daughter in exchange for his departure.
The toll of investigations challenges the long-standing perception that Virginia is a “fairly well-run, responsible state,” said Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor.
“When you take all that together — Hamilton, McDonnell and Puckett — you have federal investigators suggesting that Virginia’s political culture is far more soiled than Virginians think it is,” he said. “Is it an aberration or the new normal?”
Whether the revelations affect voters is an open question. While the electorate has turned on seemingly entrenched incumbents such as U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), it has also demonstrated forgiveness, reelecting scandal-tarred pols such as Reps. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) and Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).
No politician, perhaps, has survived more damaging revelations than D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who was reelected mayor after being caught smoking crack.
“Americans vote based more on what they think of politicians’ performance, or potential performance, than on their behavior,” said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University history professor. “On the one hand, we think they should be upstanding, moral creatures. On the other hand, if we like them or their performance in office, that matters more.”
A marathon campaigner who walks door-to-door for votes, Morrissey has five electoral victories, including four in a largely African American portion of Richmond and surrounding suburbs.
In the General Assembly, Morrissey is known for bombastic oratory and audacious drama, once brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle in the House chamber as he argued for a weapons ban. A Republican colleague interrupted to ask Morrissey to remove his finger from the trigger guard.
“I’m a lovable guy — to know me is to love me,” Morrissey said, explaining his success with constituents.
But he acknowledged that last week’s indictment threatens that bond.
“Unless I’m entirely vindicated,” he said, “it will be a career-ender.”
Prosecutors have accused Morrissey of having sex last August with an underage receptionist at his law firm and of possessing child pornography acquired after he asked for a nude photograph of her. Morrissey shared the photo with a friend, according to the indictment.
Morrissey dismissed the charges as “baseless.” As evidence of his innocence, he said the alleged victim and her mother have told police that she did not have sex with him and that the purportedly incriminating texts he and the girl sent are fraudulent.
“I am 100 percent sure that when the fact-finder hears the evidence, I will be vindicated,” he said.
The delegate’s legal team has accused special prosecutor William F. Neely, the commonwealth’s attorney in Spotsylvania County, of nursing a long-standing grudge against Morrissey, whose reinstatement to the bar in 2011 Neely opposed.
Neely waved away any suggestion of a vendetta, saying the indictment was driven by evidence, “the strongest part” of which “will be the text messages from Mr. Morrissey’s phone and the girl’s phone.”
Responding to Morrissey’s contention that the texts are fake, Neely said: “The police and I found no evidence of any hacking. Period.”
Morrissey’s maiden brush with infamy was in 1991, after he became Richmond’s swaggering, fast-talking commonwealth’s attorney.
During a heroin trial, the prosecutor and defense attorney David Baugh became so heated that the judge ordered them into the hallway outside the courtroom, where Morrissey punched his rival in the face.
“The Brawl in the Hall” is how the incident became known around the courthouse. Morrissey spent five days in jail and resolved to embrace the image of himself as a fighter. When he opened his law practice, he decorated the waiting room with 12 boxing gloves, each signed by heavyweights such as Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
“Everyone knew that Joe of Joe’s pugilistic endeavors,” he recalled. “Why in the world run from that?”
Indeed, Morrissey seemed willing to talk about almost anything. A bachelor, he acknowledged being the father of three daughters — the oldest is 27, the youngest is 21 months — with three different mothers.
“I enjoy the little one so much, I might have four more,” Morrissey said, although he seemed less eager to say whether he’d ever marry.
The son of a cardiologist, Morrissey and five siblings grew up in Annandale, where he attended parochial schools before enrolling at the University of Virginia. In 1981, while at Georgetown University law school, Morrissey, as a Republican, lost a race for the House of Delegates. Eight years later, after becoming a Democrat, he was elected Richmond’s prosecutor.
His 1993 reelection bid collapsed when he was indicted on bribery and perjury charges. The indictment grew out of Morrissey’s handling of a rape case in which he reduced the charge to a misdemeanor in exchange for the defendant pleading guilty and the defendant’s father paying $25,000 to the victim.
Morrissey also designated charities for the defendant’s father to contribute another $25,000, an arrangement he never disclosed to the victim.
After he lost the primary election, a jury acquitted him of the charges. But a judicial panel suspended his law license for six months, ruling that his handling of the rape case was unethical.
Five years later, a federal judge sentenced Morrissey to 90 days in jail and barred him from court for two years after he improperly spoke to reporters about a drug case.
The following year, Morrissey got into another fight, this time with a home contractor. As part of his probation, a judge ordered Morrissey to perform 300 hours of community service. But Morrissey, investigators found, tried to fake the number of hours he served. A judge sentenced him to another 90 days in jail.
A judicial tribunal then disbarred Morrissey, citing his “long track record of severe ethical problems.” A federal judge banned him from practicing in federal court.
Unable to practice in Virginia, Morrissey studied and taught law in Ireland and Australia, where he was well-received until officials discovered that he had not disclosed his disbarment.
At one point, Mark Tedeschi, an Australian prosecutor who had lauded Morrissey, professed “personal embarrassment” after learning about his transgressions. “I feel betrayed,” Tedeschi wrote in a complaint letter.
Morrissey returned to Virginia and ran for the House of Delegates, confident that voters would support him.
“Joe is Back,” read his campaign signs in the 2007 race, in which he defeated four opponents.
“He’s always been seen as a fighter,” said J.J. Minor, chairman of the Richmond City Democratic Committee. “For the folks who don’t know how to fight for themselves, he’s a person who fights.”
In 2011, the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board rejected Morrissey’s application to revive his law practice. But the state’s Supreme Court voted 4 to 3 to reinstate him.
Morrissey, who won reelection last year, said he had hoped to run for the seat that’s opening with the retirement of state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond). But he said that last week’s indictment has halted that plan.
Reflecting on his notoriety, Morrissey invoked the writer Oscar Wilde.
“The only thing worse than them talking about you,” he said, “is them not talking about you.”