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Texts between Augusta County BOS members paint new picture of March 20 closed session

Chris Graham
Augusta County
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Steven Morelli reached out to two members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors the morning of March 20 to tell them that he had resigned his seat on the board, his decision, we would learn later, reportedly influenced by still-unspecified sexual-harassment allegations that had been lodged against him.

Morelli then traded a series of friendly texts that afternoon with a third BOS member after the board went into a lengthy closed session that we’ve been since led to believe was called to discuss disciplining Morelli.

The communications came to light on Friday in text messages between Morelli and Jeff Slaven, the board’s vice chair, and board members Gerald Garber and Butch Wells that have been obtained by Augusta Free Press.

The revelations in the texts put into question the reasoning used by a state court judge in the denial of a request made by AFP to get access to a recording of the March 20 closed session made by a fourth board member, Scott Seaton.

AFP filed a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act on Aug. 4 for a copy of the recording of the closed session made by Seaton, then filed suit against the county after the FOIA request was denied on Aug. 21.

In a Sept. 5 hearing in Augusta County General District Court, we made the case that the Board of Supervisors had improperly gone into closed session to discuss Morelli’s resignation, pointing to the fact that Morelli had already resigned his seat ahead of the meeting, and was thus no longer a “public officer” under the state code.

The county argued that Morelli was still technically a public officer because his resignation, which Morelli submitted on the morning of March 20, should have been considered revocable until midnight on March 20.

Judge Rupen R. Shah sided with the county on that point in his ruling.

“If a public body has the authority to censure, reprimand or otherwise discipline a fellow member of the elected body, then it may exercise this exemption to discuss the performance and subsequent discipline of the member. If no such authority exists, then the exemption is not applicable,” Shah wrote in his opinion.

“The public officer who was to be discussed had tendered his resignation prior to the meeting. However, acceptance of that resignation was not done by the board, and the resignation was revocable,” Shah wrote.

To make clear what the judge is saying there, the Board of Supervisors was able to discuss Morelli’s status behind closed doors because even though he had already resigned his seat, he could still change his mind – though the texts Morelli sent to Garber and Slaven two hours before the BOS meeting on March 20 made clear that he wasn’t hedging on his decision to step down.

“Gerald, it’s with a heavy heart that I resigned from the board today. Please give me a call when you get a minute,” Morelli wrote to Garber, in a text message time-stamped at 11:08:30 a.m. on March 20.

“I just resigned from the board,” Morelli wrote to Slaven, in a text message time-stamped at 11:10:18 a.m. on March 20.

morelli texts There is no hint from Morelli that he considered his resignation revocable in either of those messages, or in his communications after the Board of Supervisors meeting with Wells, with the two trading six text messages beginning with a 4:55:43 p.m. text from Morelli.

“Are you done with the meeting?” Morelli asked Wells in that first text.

Wells responded at 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 !! ❤️”

Less than a minute later, at 5:49:12 p.m., Morelli got back to Wells.

“Thanks Butch I’m always here for you and Donna.”

Less than a minute later, at 5:50:03 p.m., Wells responded.

“Going out for a walk before my head explodes- I despise that woman!!!”

Seconds later, at 5:50:17 p.m., Morelli texted back: “Me too.”

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

Note the friendly tone to the messages sent back and forth. Nothing in that exchange suggests that Morelli was expecting to hear that his now-former fellow Board of Supervisors members were considering using their “authority to censure, reprimand or otherwise discipline” him, borrowing language from Shah’s ruling.

There was even a playful exchange between the two on “that woman,” whose identity will have to remain a mystery, for now.

At first glance, you have to wonder if her identity is related to a comment made by Seaton after the Board of Supervisors returned following the nearly two-hour closed session at the March 20 meeting.

Seaton said after the board returned to open session that he had planned “to make a statement” on the Morelli resignation, but “the board and the victims have asked me to hold off on that, and so I’ll choose to hold off right now.”

So, there were “victims,” at least per Seaton, on March 20, and then we learned from a comment made in a July 12 BOS meeting by the board’s chair, Michael Shull, that the Morelli resignation had to do with sexual-harassment allegations.

We reached out to Wells on Friday to try to learn who he was referring to in the “that woman” comment to Morelli, asking specifically if “that woman” was a reference to a woman who made a sexual-harassment allegation against Morelli.

“I’m not aware of any sexual harassment victim,” Wells, who was in attendance at the March 20 and July 12 Board of Supervisors meetings, according to minutes for each meeting later approved by the BOS, wrote in an email to AFP.

How we get here: Augusta County FOIA case archive

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].