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Augusta County bungles another FOIA response in surprise Morelli resignation

Chris Graham
(© Jon – stock.adobe.com)

Augusta County leaders were curiously quiet on the status of Steven Morelli in the weeks leading up to the South River supervisor’s surprise resignation on March 20, 2023.

At least this is what we’re being led to believe, from the response by the county government to our Dec. 21 request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act for emails and texts from members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors and the county administrator’s office.

A total of 47 emails and one text message was shared with us on Wednesday from the 84 that the county determined to be responsive to the request, which had sought “copies of texts and emails with the search terms ‘steve morelli,’ ‘steven morelli,’ ‘morelli,’ ‘the morelli situation,’ ‘agenda,’ ‘closed meeting’” and the name of one of the two county employees who were purported victims of sexual harassment involving Morelli, which I am redacting here.

The request was for communications “from members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, County Administrator Tim FItzgerald, Deputy County Administrator Jennifer Whetzel, County Attorney James Benkahla and Assistant County Attorney Kathleen Keffer for the dates March 1, 2023, to March 21, 2023.”

On Dec. 22, a day after the FOIA request was filed with the county, Butch Wells, who represents the Beverley Manor District on the Board of Supervisors, called me to try to strongarm me into telling him who had given me the name of one of the purported sexual-harassment victims, and to tell me that he had started a “file” and was playing “criminal games” to try to get to the bottom of who the source was.

The effort did not go all that well for Wells, who later had to admit, after I filed a FOIA request to access the “file” that he claimed to have started, that the file was nothing more than a “mental” file.

The Butch Wells angle

The interest of Wells in our continued digging into the story behind Morelli’s resignation was made more clear in the limited information that we were able to get from the county’s response to our Dec. 21 FOIA request.

The only digital communication in the response that was germane to the topic of Morelli’s resignation was an email conversation involving Wells and a man named Rick Pfizenmayer, the co-owner of Barterbrook Manor Farm, on March 21, 2023.

Pfizenmayer (March 21, 2023, 9:20 a.m.): Wow! Steve’s resignation sure came as a surprise to me as I had talked with him several times over the last couple of weeks and had every indication he was preparing to run again in November. Whatever some might say about him, he was a tireless worker on behalf of his district and his support of the community will be missed. I hope his sudden resignation isn’t due to worsening health.

Wells (March 21, 2023, 10:31 a.m.): 2 words: “Dirty politics” by 2 individuals !!!  Wish I could say more !!

Pfizenmayer (March 21, 2023, 11:23 a.m.): I have my suspicions.

Wells (March 21, 2023, 12:09 p.m.): And I’d bet you’d be right !!!

They left something out

Oddly, the county’s response to our FOIA request did not include three text messages previously disclosed to county resident Scott Cline in a separate FOIA response that were authenticated by the county in a Dec. 21 Augusta County Circuit Court hearing.

That court hearing was held to hear arguments in the suit filed by AFP and Breaking Through Media for access to a digital recording of a closed meeting of the Board of Supervisors held on March 20, 2023, to discuss the Morelli resignation.

The first text message, marked Exhibit 8 by the court, was from Morelli to Gerald Garber, the Middle River District supervisor.

Morelli (March 20, 2023, 11:08:30 a.m.): “Gerald, it’s with a heavy heart that I resigned from the board today. Please give me a call when you get a minute.

Exhibit 9 was a text message from Morelli to North River Supervisor Jeffrey Slaven.

Morelli (March 20, 2023, 11:10:18 a.m.): “I just resigned from the board.

Exhibit 10 was a text thread involving Morelli and Wells.

Morelli (March 20, 2023, 4:55:43 p.m.): “Are you done with the meeting?”

Wells (March 20, 2023, 5:48:28 p.m.): “Yep- missed you !! I love you man ! Call me anytime and I’ll stay in touch. You made the right decision- don’t look back !! ❤️”

Morelli (March 20, 2023, 5:49:12 p.m.): “Thanks Butch I’m always here for you and Donna.”

Wells (March 20, 2023, 5:50:03 p.m.): “Going out for a walk before my head explodes- I despise that woman!!!”

Morelli (March 20, 2023, 5:50:17 p.m.): “Me too.”

The final message in the thread was from a heart emoji from Wells at 6:34:46 p.m.

Tying up loose ends

Augusta County
(© Rex Wholster – stock.adobe.com)

The identities of “that woman” mentioned in the text from Wells to Morelli and the “2 individuals” that Wells accused of “dirty politics” in the email to Pfizenmayer are not clear, though you have to wonder if the Dec. 21 phone call stirred up by my FOIA request that identified by name one of the purported victims may be related.

It’s also not clear why the county did not include these texts in the response to our FOIA request sent to us on Wednesday.

In a letter, Kathleen Keffer, the assistant county attorney, told us that four emails and one text message determined to have been responsive to our request were being withheld due to the personnel and closed meeting exemptions in the state FOIA code, and another 26 emails and five text messages were being withheld pursuant to attorney-client privilege and attorney work product exemptions in the FOIA code.

I’ve reached out to Keffer to try to pin down dates on the four emails and the one text message that were withheld under the personnel exemption, and not gotten back a response.

I’ve also since learned that a text conversation involving two members of the board, who I will not name here, was shared with county staff in line with my Dec. 21 request.

Based on the nature of that text conversation, it should not have been exempted by the county pursuant to any of the three reasons cited in the county’s response to me.

It’s apparent to me that the county left some things out in its response to my Dec. 21 FOIA request.

I’ll probably have to litigate that one, too, but in the meantime, I’ve filed another request, for texts and emails between members of the board and county administration on Morelli for the dates March 21, 2023, through Jan. 11, 2024.

Keffer, in an email, told me that there are 895 records responsive to that request.

Your guess as to how many of those that actually pertain to the Morelli resignation that we’ll actually get to see?

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].