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Augusta County invokes extension to respond to Morelli-related public records request

Chris Graham
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Augusta County has invoked its right to a seven-day extension to respond to my Freedom of Information Act request for additional public records related to the March 20 resignation of former South River Supervisor Steven Morelli.

I filed the request with the county on Dec. 21, asking for “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 alleged victims of sexual harassment that reportedly led to Morelli’s resignation, which I am not making public, “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.”

The request is aimed at trying to learn more about what county leaders knew, and when, relative to the sexual-harassment allegations that were rumored at the time of Morelli’s resignation, and were later confirmed by Augusta County Board of Supervisors chair Michael Shull.

AFP and Breaking Through Media have filed separate FOIA requests for access to a digital copy of a recording of a closed session of the Board of Supervisors held on March 20 in which the Morelli resignation, which had been tendered ahead of the meeting, was discussed.

The county denied both FOIA requests, and AFP and Breaking Through Media have challenged the denials in Augusta County Circuit Court, in a case that is still active and ongoing.

In a joint hearing in the cases last week, Fitzgerald testified that members of the Board of Supervisors were not, to his knowledge, aware of Morelli’s resignation at the time of the March 20 closed meeting, a key point in the county’s defense of its denial of the FOIA requests for access to the recording of the closed session.

It did emerge in court that Morelli had sent an email to Fitzgerald and two members of the board at 1:12 p.m., ahead of the scheduled 1:30 p.m. start of the March 20 board meeting, and that Morelli, in texts with board members Gerald Garber and Jeffrey Slaven, sent at 11:08 a.m. and 11:10 a.m. the morning of March 20, had indicated that he had “resigned from the board.”

I made the request for copies of texts and emails involving board members and top county officials involving the Morelli matter dating back three weeks before the resignation to see if there had been discussion of what was about to happen ahead of the March 20 meeting.

The thinking there: if there had been prior discussion of the Morelli matter ahead of the March 20 meeting, that might render the county’s contention that it could legally discuss his resignation in closed session null and void.

The day after I filed my FOIA request, I received a phone call from Beverley Manor Supervisor Butch Wells, in which Wells pressed me to identify the source of information that led me to include the name of one of the alleged sexual-harassment victims in the request.

In the course of the call, Wells said he had started a “file” to look into the source of that information.

“They’re playing, they’re playing political games. I don’t play political games. I play criminal games,” Wells said in the call.

Assistant County Attorney Kathleen Keffer later clarified to me in an email that Wells had indicated to her that the “file” was not a physical file, but rather a “‘mental’ file.”

Keffer, in an email response to my Dec. 21 FOIA request sent to me on Friday, indicated that the county has “identified records responsive to your request,” and that the records “are currently under legal review.”

The new deadline for the county to respond is Wednesday, Jan. 10.

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].