Joseph D. Morrissey left his jail cell Wednesday morning and headed to a tiny office cluttered with boxes next to the state Capitol, where he took an oath of office to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates.
For the oldest continuous lawmaking body in the New World, this was new drama: a jailed legislator who makes laws by day on work release and gets locked up by night.
That has left the rest of the House wondering just what to do with Morrissey, a Democrat-turned-independent who is serving a six-month term stemming from his relationship with a then-17-year-old former receptionist at his law firm. He resigned his seat when he was convicted but won it back in a special election Tuesday.
As House members consider whether to discipline or even expel Morrissey, they are wrestling with constitutional questions as well as the shame of yet another tawdry episode in a state unaccustomed to political scandal. Morrissey returned to Virginia’s stately Capitol just a week after former governor Robert F. McDonnell received a two-year prison sentence for corruption. As if the timing weren’t convergence enough, McDonnell (R) made a surprise appearance at a prayer breakfast Wednesday to kick off the session.
Both Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Democratic House leaders expressed dismay at Morrissey’s victory in his suburban Richmond district, saying they would look to the state Constitution and House rules to guide their next steps. But some members questioned the political wisdom — or even legality — of ousting someone who still has the voters behind him.
In the afternoon, Howell announced that they were still considering the matter and would not take any action Wednesday. But by day’s end, Morrissey had not been assigned to serve on any committees, and Howell acknowledged that he took the step in response to Morrissey’s “reprehensible” actions.
Even without disciplinary action, l’affaire Morrissey enlivened the first day of the 2015 General Assembly session. Reporters staked out his new, seventh-floor office, diminished digs assigned to the House’s least-senior member in an office building riddled with asbestos and balky plumbing.
He chose that spot, over the ornate House chamber, for House Clerk G. Paul Nardo to give the oath of office, ostensibly to draw less attention to his swearing-in. But reporters crammed into the room to record the moment.
Trailed by TV cameras, Morrissey entered the chamber minutes later, sweeping past the sergeant of arms, who was holding a ceremonial gold mace in his white-gloved hands. Morrissey settled into his new seat, the least senior in the chamber, far to the speaker’s left and in the front row.
On the wall was a reminder of another House scandal: a portrait of former speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., who was forced out in 2002 in a sex scandal after he paid $100,000 to a woman who accused him of sexual harassment.
There was a tremendous sense of uncertainty among delegates, some of whom said privately that they would like to oust Morrissey but feared that he had outmaneuvered them by standing for reelection before the House had an opportunity to expel him. Now that the voters have embraced him again, warts and all, it is harder to boot him, they said.
“I don’t think they can expel him based on crimes committed prior to being elected,” said state Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax), who said he has looked at case law and predicted a lawsuit if the House pursued expulsion.
Voters chose Morrissey, Petersen said, and “I think that does have meaning, legally and politically.”
In brief remarks to reporters after taking the oath, Morrissey said he was prepared to respond on the floor to any comments made about him. None came, and Morrissey, known for loquacious floor speeches, stayed mum. Throughout the session, he sat quietly, reading papers on his desk during breaks in the action.
Howell made no mention of the scandal in brief remarks to the body, but he did say that citizens expect the members to serve with “honor, integrity and civility.”
There was some quiet grumbling and gallows humor expressed privately by delegates. One remarked, “This is probably about the only time that you can safely use the words ‘stupid’ and ‘voters’ in the same sentence.”
Asked what was next, Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) sighed and declared herself in the dark.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “The whole thing is an unfortunate distraction from what we should be focused on, which is the business of the commonwealth.”
Only one delegate appeared to stop by Morrissey’s desk to say hello. It was Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond). McQuinn said they just exchanged pleasantries, but she told a reporter that she stood by Morrissey’s right to serve.
“The voters of his district went to the polls with knowledge of everything going on and decided they would vote for him again,” she said. “I stand in support of whatever the voters have chosen.”
Morrissey also chatted a bit with his new seatmate, Del. Joseph Preston (D-Petersburg), who on Jan. 6 won a special election to replace Rosalyn R. Dance (D), who moved up to the state Senate. By dint of his notorious seatmate, Preston had 11 TV cameras trained in his direction all afternoon.
But the House newcomer was unfazed. In fact, he’d rubbed elbows with Morrissey in difficult circumstances before. A Petersburg lawyer, Preston said he had represented Morrissey more than 20 years ago when Morrissey was sued by a client for fraud.
Preston said that Morrissey prevailed in the fraud case, with a jury returning a verdict in his favor in 11 minutes.
Running as an independent in Tuesday’s special election, Morrissey collected 42 percent of the vote against a Democrat and a Republican in a heavily Democratic district spanning the Richmond suburbs.
Voters were apparently not bothered by Morrissey’s plea last month on a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Prosecutors said that in addition to the affair, Morrissey shared a naked photograph of the young woman while she was underage.
The 57-year-old lawmaker has maintained his innocence — accusing the receptionist’s ex-lover of hacking their phones — but he entered a guilty plea to avoid a possible conviction on felony charges. He also resigned from office but immediately vowed to run again.
In a radio interview Monday, the woman, now 18 and pregnant, denied having a sexual relationship with Morrissey. She declined to identify the father of her child, which prosecutors have said is “perhaps” Morrissey’s.
Morrissey was sentenced to six months in jail. He was accepted into a work-release program, allowing him to leave jail for up to 12 hours a day for campaign activity or to work at his law practice. The program also reduces Morrissey’s sentence to 90 days.
Henrico County Sheriff Michael Wade said that Morrissey has typically left the jail at 7:30 a.m. and returned at 7:30 p.m., but for Election Day, he requested a slightly later schedule, starting at 8 a.m. — meaning results weren’t fully counted when he was required to report back to jail for the night.
Morrissey’s law partner, Paul Goldman, said he notified Morrissey of his win in a phone call.
Wade said that Morrissey returned to jail — after doing a television interview on the way in — six or seven minutes late.
Morrissey has been allowed to drive his car, which was outfitted with a GPS device to track his movements. The procedure will continue during the session but with accommodations for the General Assembly’s unpredictable schedule, which often finds lawmakers deliberating late into the night.
Morrissey has his own cell at Henrico County’s Regional Jail East in New Kent County, which houses work-release inmates.
If lawmakers move to oust Morrissey, a new spectacle could unfold involving public hearings rehashing the sordid details that landed Morrissey behind bars.
In an hour-long interview in the jailhouse lobby Wednesday morning, Morrissey warned his House colleagues not to thwart the will of the voters.
“Listen: Do what you want, but you will taint and sully the Virginia General Assembly by denying the voters the person they want in there,” he said. “My point is everywhere along the line, Mr. Speaker, I have taken the high road. I’ve turned the other cheek. I didn’t go negative. I’ve played the hand that was dealt me. And now you’re going to say to the folks in the 74th District that you’ll make the decision who serves. I think not. Mine is a minority-majority district that’s subject to the Voting Rights Act.”
The process to expel or censure a delegate would begin with the filing of a resolution, which would be referred to one of several committees or a select committee created for this purpose. The committee would hold hearings before sending its recommendation to the full body. The votes of two-thirds of delegates are needed to expel; a simple majority is required to censure.
If Morrissey is expelled, yet another special election could be called — and he could run again if he chooses. In the case of a censure, lawmakers could keep him from serving on boards and commissions or suspend his floor privileges.
Morrissey left jail Wednesday in a pinstriped suit and white shirt with monogrammed cuffs. An electronic monitoring device on his left ankle and his pairing of athletic socks with dress shoes were the only visual clues of his circumstances.
Morrissey encountered an unexpected obstacle when he left the jailhouse early Wednesday: His blue Jaguar, along with all the other cars in the parking lot, was encased in ice.
He eventually got a ride from the jail with a reporter — but only after two sheriff’s deputies stopped their car and rolled down their window to say hello. “Congratulations!” one said.