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Virginia State Bar files ethics complaint against Joe Morrissey alleging cover-up of sex scandal
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Virginia State Bar files ethics complaint against Joe Morrissey alleging cover-up of sex scandal

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The Virginia State Bar charged former Del. Joseph D. Morrissey this week with destroying evidence and making false statements in court in an attempt to cover up a 2013 sexual relationship with a then-17-year-old receptionist in his law office.

Morrissey, a flamboyant area defense attorney who was a front-runner in Richmond’s mayoral contest last year, could face the suspension or loss of his law license if the ethics complaint is upheld.

The bar investigation follows a criminal prosecution that concluded in 2014, when he entered a plea deal in which he agreed to serve three months in jail on a single charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Morrissey has since married the woman, Myrna Morrissey, and the couple have two children together.

Morrissey vigorously argued that he was innocent, including in a court filing attached to his plea. In the document, he claimed he was framed by the young woman’s jilted lover, whom Morrissey said had planted lewd and incriminating text messages discovered by police.

It was that defense — and the court filing that laid it out — that drew the ethics investigation, which began in 2015 and focused on whether Morrissey committed professional misconduct by lying to further his defense.

According to the bar complaint, Morrissey did. The seven-page document details allegations that he concocted the hacking defense, deleted incriminating text messages from his phone, fabricated alibis and instructed potential witnesses as to what their testimony should be.

The bar cites witness testimony, phone records and a recording of Morrissey himself, in which he instructed Myrna “what the story should be, talked to her about who she could get to help corroborate the story and told her how to get other individuals to agree with the theory.”

And it details what it describes as Morrissey’s evolving alibis for the night he was accused of having sex with the receptionist, first telling his defense attorney that he had sex with another woman in his office that night, then claiming he was never in his office and instead was at a meeting in Charles City County and later met with a minister and delivered backpacks for children.

The bar also rebuts Morrissey’s hacker defense, alleging that the Verizon phone records clearly indicate graphic text messages were sent directly by Morrissey.

Bar investigators allege that even the forensic expert hired by Morrissey reported that Morrissey appeared to have deleted text messages “having potential evidentiary value from his phone” and that lewd text messages uncovered by investigators most plausibly originated from Morrissey.

Morrissey could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but the bar complaint notes he has retained a lawyer and is acting as his own co-counsel.

“During the course of the hearings conducted in this matter, (Morrissey) has made false statements to the court regarding the ... case in that, among other statements, he continues to tell the court that he did not send sexually explicit messages,” according to the document

The complaint will go next to the bar’s disciplinary board for a hearing, which has not yet been scheduled. Morrissey has already lost his Virginia license to practice law once, in 2003. That was two years after a disciplinary panel disbarred him at the federal level, citing, in part, Morrissey’s “chronic disregard for truthfulness.”

The Supreme Court of Virginia reinstated his state license in 2012, against the recommendation of the State Bar’s disciplinary board.

Morrissey is already the subject of an unrelated pending bar complaint initiated by former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

The Wilder complaint centers on Morrissey’s representation of Wilder and his National Slavery Museum in 2013. At the time, Wilder was seeking to fend off the city of Fredericksburg’s efforts to collect $320,000 in unpaid taxes. Wilder’s complaint questions Morrissey’s competence and diligence in the matter. Morrissey has said Wilder filed the complaint only after he was unable to pay an outstanding legal bill.

A hearing on that case is set for Wednesday and Thursday in Richmond Circuit Court.

Morrissey, a Democrat, served in the House of Delegates from 2008 to 2014, when he stepped down amid pressure from fellow lawmakers. However, he immediately announced his candidacy as an independent in the special election to choose his replacement — a race he won while serving a work-release jail sentence.

He announced he would run for mayor in March last year and polling throughout the race put him in the lead of the crowded field.

In the final weeks of the race, Morrissey faced allegations of sexual misconduct by a former law client, who said Morrissey exposed himself to her in his law office and sent her inappropriate text messages. A Henrico County judge took the rare step of granting the woman a new trial after the allegations were revealed. Morrissey made repeated and forceful denials of the claims.

Morrissey ultimately came in third place behind former Venture Richmond Director Jack Berry and the ultimate victor, Levar Stoney.

Former Del. Joseph D. Morrissey’s law license could be suspended or revoked if a Virginia State Bar ethics complaint is upheld.

noliver@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6178

Twitter: @nedoliver

Staff writer Graham Moomaw contributed to this report.

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