Investigators with the Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Treasury Department will present evidence in the coming months to a special grand jury regarding Councilman Mark Whitaker’s church, its development company and its now-defunct credit union, according to court documents obtained by The Virginian-Pilot.
It is unclear what investigators have uncovered, but Chief Circuit Judge William Moore Jr. has assigned a special prosecutor to oversee “the investigation and prosecution of Mark Whitaker.” The judge also ordered that grand jurors investigate, among other things, the financial relationships between the church entities as well as transactions between those entities and their members.
Moore ordered Capt. Lee Cherry and Investigator Brett Johnson of the Sheriff’s Office to assist the grand jury, along with Special Agent Thomas Kim of the Treasury Department.
According to other court documents, the Sheriff’s Office, Treasury Department and the federal agency that regulates credit unions conducted the original investigation and then presented evidence to Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales. Because of a conflict of interest “and to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” she asked the court in January to disqualify her office and assign a special prosecutor.
Whitaker, an assistant pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church who serves as president of New Bethel Development LLC and previously served as chairman of the New Bethel Federal Credit Union, said Thursday he was unaware of the grand jury investigation.
He was quick, however, to decry the Sheriff’s Office’s involvement as politically motivated.
“I find it troubling and disheartening that the sheriff is attempting to bring criminal charges against another black public official, such as he tried to do against our former mayor,” said Whitaker, referencing a slow-speed chase last year that ended with Watson charging former Mayor Kenny Wright with felony eluding police.
A special prosecutor, Verbena Askew, later dropped all charges. She now represents Whitaker.
Whitaker said he “didn’t even know the Sheriff’s Office had an investigations division” and stressed that the inquiry would not change how he approaches his council work.
“This will not intimidate or dissuade me from speaking on the issue of social and economic justice, from speaking truth to power,” said the councilman and former School Board member.
Whitaker referred further questions to Askew.
SOURCE: Scott Daugherty and Ana Ley