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‘Virginia is for all lovers’: House and Senate pass legislation to ban LGBTQ discrimination

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, came to Richmond for the first time 30 years ago for a gay rights lobby day. Only a handful of legislators talked to him.

“I don’t think it made a difference — at least not at that time,” said Ebbin, who became Virginia’s first openly gay legislator after he was elected in 2003. “Things have changed.”

The state Senate on Thursday passed an Ebbin-sponsored bill, dubbed the Virginia Values Act, that would prohibit discrimination in housing as well as public and private employment based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The House of Delegates passed a similar bill Thursday.

The act also would create new nondiscrimination protections for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community in housing and public accommodations.

“This legislation is needed. It is urgent. It is important to know that discrimination is still happening in Virginia,” Ebbin said. “It is time to drive it out and until we do, our commonwealth will continue to suffer the psychological, physical and economic vandalism simply because of who people are or who they love.”

The bill, Senate Bill 868, passed the Senate in a bipartisan 30-9 vote.

“It’s certainly time that we embrace equality for everybody in the commonwealth of Virginia,” said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, one of nine Republicans to join the 21 Senate Democrats in voting for the bill.

LGBTQ people are not explicitly protected from discrimination under state law, meaning they could be fired, evicted or denied service in restaurants because of their sexuality or gender identity.

James Parrish, the director of the Virginia Values Coalition, called Thursday a “historic day in Virginia.”

Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Virginia would be the first state in the South to have nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people if the legislation is signed into law.

Virginia is home to roughly 250,000 LGBTQ adults, according to Vee Lamneck, the executive director of Equality Virginia, the state’s main LGBTQ advocacy organization.

“Virginia has often been a leader, so passing this legislation really helps to affirm Virginia’s place in history as a leader around fairness and around equity,” Lamneck said.

The House of Delegates backed the companion bill, House Bill 1663 from Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, in a 59-35 vote while supporters wore rainbow-colored, heart-shaped stickers. In 2014, Sickles announced that he is gay, making him the second openly gay member of the General Assembly.

“What we are now seeing here is a statement of affirmation in which we welcome Virginians and we welcome you because of who you are, not despite it, and not for what discriminatory politicians tell you you’re supposed to be,” said Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, the first openly transgender lawmaker in a U.S. legislature.

“We are here to tell you that you are welcomed, celebrated, respected and protected in Virginia — no matter what you look like, where you come from, how you worship if you do, who you love, or as [Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas] likes to say, who you’re born to be.”

Roem added: “Virginia is for everyone. Virginia is for lovers. Virginia is for all lovers.”

Before the vote, Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, expressed concern that the bill could violate people’s religious freedom. He specifically cited the case of Peter Vlaming, a teacher at West Point High School in King William County who was fired in 2018 after resisting administrators’ orders to use male pronouns when referring to a freshman student who had undergone a gender transition, citing his religious beliefs.

“Peter Vlaming wants to be who he is,” LaRock said.

Vlaming sued the West Point School Board in October, accusing the board of breach of contract and of violating his rights.

Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday at an Equality Virginia reception that he supports the bills.

“We can take action this year and we are going to officially end discrimination in the commonwealth of Virginia,” he said. “We are on the cusp of doing historic things.”

He added: “We want to welcome people to the commonwealth of Virginia. That’s who we are. It shouldn’t matter the country that you come from. It shouldn’t matter the color of your skin. It shouldn’t matter what religion you practice, and it shouldn’t matter who you choose to love.”

The passage of the Virginia Values Act comes as Democrats, holding House and Senate majorities and the governorship for the first time in 26 years, pass legislation that advocates say is long overdue.

Bills to ban conversion therapy — a discredited method of attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender expression of a person — and require the state Board of Education to craft model policies related to transgender students have passed both chambers, for example. Those bills, and others, will go into effect July 1 if Northam signs them.


Plus
Senate committee raises the price of playing for casinos, but gives relief to Colonial Downs

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee just upped the ante for legalizing casino gambling in five Virginia cities.

The committee voted 14-2 on Thursday night to adopt a new proposal that would boost the state tax rates that would apply to casino gaming revenues and the share that local governments would receive in the cities — Richmond, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol.

The proposed tax rates would start at 27% and rise to 40%, depending on the level of investment. The proposed deal that casino lobbyists, local governments and state legislators unveiled earlier this week would have ranged from 15% to 28%, with a minimum of $250 million in capital investment.

The new version of Senate Bill 36, sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, also would raise the local government share, starting at 9% and rising to 11%, depending on the level of investment. The local share in the earlier proposal would range from 5% to 7%.

“The rates are causing the most concern,” Lucas said, as casino interests in the audience texted her mobile phone with their reactions to the new version of the legislation.

The revised bill also would require casino operators to pay an initial fee of $15 million for a state license under a new gaming enforcement system that the Virginia Lottery would administer. The earlier version would have charged operators $1 million for an initial license.

Both the revised Senate bill and the legislation adopted by the House General Laws Committee would allow Colonial Downs to add up to 1,800 terminals at the Dumfries facility in Prince William County instead of the 150 machines planned there now.

The new Senate bill more closely resembles the recommendations of a sweeping gaming study the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission conducted last year than does House Bill 4, proposed by Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach. The House General Laws Committee approved Knight’s bill a vote of 11-8 on Thursday night. The House bill now will go to the House Appropriations Committee for review.

Both bills depart from the central recommendation of the JLARC study that the state establish a commission and guidelines for reviewing competitive casino applications and ultimately granting licenses. Both bills would let local governments choose operators for their projects, subject to state precertification, voter referendums on Nov. 3 and licensing review by an expanded lottery board of directors.

Norfolk, Portsmouth and Bristol already have identified partners in developing casino resorts. Danville is reviewing seven proposals it has received from a formal solicitation.

The deal unveiled earlier this week would have allowed Richmond a choice only between the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which claimed exclusive federal gaming rights, and Colonial Downs Group. It already has a stake in the city in a Rosie’s Gaming Emporium it opened last year on Midlothian Turnpike with 700 slot-like machines that operate on historical horse racing results.

Both bills would now open the Richmond casino license to competition at the request of the city and at least one new competitor, Urban One, an African American radio company that already is an investor in the MGM National Harbor casino and resort in Maryland, just across the Potomac River from Virginia.

In the Senate bill, the city would have the option, but not a state mandate, to give the tribe and Colonial Downs “preferred consideration.” The House version would require the city to give “substantial and preferred consideration” to both competitors.

The Pamunkey tribe already has an agreement with Norfolk to build a $700 million casino resort next to the city’s waterfront on the Elizabeth River. It also has proposed a $350 million casino resort in South Richmond, using either a new state commercial license or exercising its gaming rights under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The Senate committee also voted to restore language, stricken by its General Laws and Technology Committee on Tuesday, that would compensate Colonial Downs for a potential loss of revenue estimated at 45% by the state’s watchdog agency if the state grants five casino licenses that would compete with the company’s growing network of Rosie’s gaming parlors.

The company has invested $300 million to reopen the Colonial Downs horse racing track in New Kent County and Rosie’s operations there and in Richmond, Hampton and Roanoke County. It also received voter approval in referendums last fall to establish gaming parlors in Danville and in Dumfries that would give the company a foothold in the Northern Virginia market considered most lucrative in the JLARC study.

Under restored language, Colonial Downs would be entitled to an additional 600 gaming terminals for each casino license granted to a competitor, with a statewide cap of 2,500 additional machines. Currently, the company is limited to 3,000 terminals and no more than 700 in one location.

Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, said the Senate gaming subcommittee was concerned about the scale of a larger gaming facility in Dumfries and the potential to make Colonial Downs an incumbent that the state would have compensate again if a casino were proposed in Northern Virginia.

Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, said the opposition could have reflected “some competitive considerations,” which he did not explain, and urged the committee to restore the provisions to compensate Colonial Downs. The committee restored the language by a voice vote.

“Colonial Downs Group appreciates the General Assembly recognizing the significant investment we have made and good jobs we have created,” Aaron Gomes, the company’s chief operating officer, said in a statement on Thursday night. “We look forward to continuing our partnership with the Commonwealth and its localities and generating more tax revenues and economic investment as a result of this legislation.”


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Plus
House of Delegates passes bill to allow collective bargaining for public employees

While the Senate has scaled back its version, the Virginia House of Delegates is moving forward with a proposal to allow public sector employees, including teachers, to collectively bargain.

On Thursday, the House voted 54-45 to approve House Bill 582 from Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, to repeal the prohibition on collective bargaining by public employees.

“Virginia is on its way to becoming the 48th state to give our public employees the freedom to bargain collectively,” Guzman said in a statement after the vote.

“After dedicating their careers to public service, teachers, firefighters, police officers, state and local government employees will have a seat at the table and a voice at work, which will in turn empower them to advocate for the communities they serve. I am proud to stand by them in achieving it.”

Guzman’s bill would also create the Public Employee Relations Board, a panel that would determine bargaining units.

The Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Association of Counties oppose the bill, among other groups.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a statement: “When boards and councils negotiate with labor, a bad deal doesn’t come out of their pocket. This will increase local taxes on hard working Virginia families.”

Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, said the measure “will put local taxpayers on the hook for the lawyers and labor experts every city, county and town will have to hire to ensure compliance.”

Virginia is one of three states, along with North Carolina and South Carolina, that does not give public sector employees the power to collectively bargain.

Jim Livingston, the president of the Virginia Education Association, said Thursday that it’s time for that to change.

“Students benefit when teachers and other school professionals have a voice to advocate for students and public schools,” he said, adding that collective bargaining has led to smaller class sizes and more resources for students in other states.

“Collective bargaining is good for students, good for educators, good for schools, and good for Virginia communities.”

The Senate version of the bill was folded into Senate Bill 939 from Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, that would permit, but not require, localities to have collective bargaining with public employees. Guzman’s proposal — and the one originally put forward by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax — would repeal the prohibition outright.

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee advanced Saslaw’s bill late Thursday.


Plus
breaking
State panel says Hampton Roads jail is refusing to provide full reports of 3 inmate deaths

The Hampton Roads jail that befell scrutiny over the circumstances surrounding the 2015 death of a mentally ill man — prompting the state to begin investigations of jail deaths in Virginia — is now pushing back against the investigations, according to a document obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The state panel created to examine inmate deaths has accused Hampton Roads Regional Jail of failing to cooperate with a state investigation of three deaths at the Portsmouth facility dating to December 2018 — conduct that one official described as a “blatant attempt to frustrate” investigations by the Virginia Board of Corrections.

In a sternly worded letter to jail Superintendent David Hackworth dated Jan. 29, the chairman of the board’s jail review committee, William Dean, said the jail’s response to requests for investigative records of the inmate deaths “is wholly inadequate” and does not comply with board regulations.

The jail, which holds inmates for Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Newport News and Chesapeake, has been pummeled by controversy in recent years that began after news coverage of the August 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell, who wasted away in a cell after a series of failures stopped him from being transferred to a state mental hospital.

Dean accused jail officials of “testing [the board’s] will to conduct thorough investigations.”

“This committee will not tolerate attempts to undermine the board’s authority,” Dean wrote in demanding that the jail provide the requested materials “complete and without redaction” by March 1. Failure to do so would result in the board issuing subpoenas for Hackworth and the chairman of the jail’s governing board to testify before the board on March 29 about the contents of its internal affairs reports.

“Please know that neither the board nor this committee will tolerate attempts to evade the board’s authority or frustrate its investigations,” Dean wrote.

Contacted on Wednesday, Robert Geis, chairman of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail Authority, said in an email: “The Hampton Roads Regional Jail is committed to complying with all appropriate, legally based requirements from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Staff is currently reviewing the subject letter and will provide a response as quickly as possible.”

Geis, who is a deputy city manager of Chesapeake, said he had conferred with Hackworth and that the statement was from the two of them jointly.

Hackworth announced in mid-January that he plans to retire March 1, after about two years on the job. He was hired in March 2018 as the jail’s fifth superintendent in less than 18 months.

The jail review committee says jail officials are refusing to provide the panel’s investigator, Stephen Goff, with complete internal reports relating to several inmate death investigations. Such reports had previously been provided to the investigator without delay or question.

“It is my understanding that rather than comply, you indicated that you have never provided these records in the past, are not obligated to produce them, and doing so would open you up to potential civil liability,” Dean wrote in his letter to Hackworth. “You further indicated that the board should not need these materials and should conduct an independent investigation without the aid of your materials.”

The attorney representing the Board of Corrections “also made attempts to encourage compliance” but was rebuffed, Dean said.

“At one point you indicated that your noncompliance was because the board investigator asked for the wrong document and that the board would have no further issues,” Dean added. “You also wanted this board to know that the confusion was due to the investigator.”

But later, Dean wrote, an attorney representing the jail indicated that the facility’s noncompliance “was in fact a policy change.”

Further, the jail’s attorney argued there was “no mandate for turning over records” and “invited the board to conduct an independent investigation without any materials from your facility,” Dean added in his letter.

Dean wrote that the jail’s attorney was then provided a copy of Board of Corrections regulations relevant to the records request, and after getting no response, the attorney was notified that the requested documents must be provided by the Board of Corrections’ Dec. 18, 2019, meeting.

In response, the jail turned over a “large volume of records and an investigative summary which contain only your investigative conclusions,” Dean wrote.

“It was devoid of any witness statements or underlying supporting materials,” he said.

The inmate deaths in question are:

  • the Dec. 31, 2018, suicide of Jakub Plucinski;
  • the Feb. 23, 2019, health-related death of Victor Fountain; and
  • the April 19, 2019, health-related death of Tyrone Bailey.

In 2018, the nine-member Board of Corrections, which is appointed by the governor, and its jail review committee began reviewing all jail deaths going back to July 2017. A part-time investigator position was created to assist with the investigations in response to Mitchell’s death.

That was after the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016 opened a federal civil rights investigation scrutinizing inmates’ access to medical and mental health care. Two years later, the Justice Department issued a report stating that inmates at the facility were subjected to medical and mental health care so bad that it violated their civil rights in a facility where officials didn’t fix problems even after becoming aware of them.

In the years preceding Mitchell’s death, the jail had received clean marks in licensing inspections from the Board of Corrections.

Last year, the jail review committee made a preliminary finding that the Hampton Roads facility violated minimum standards in “acts or omissions” that could have directly or indirectly contributed to the death of inmate Davageah Jones on May 15, 2018.

The jail review committee said it was reviewing possible violations of three regulations: failure to provide 24-hour emergency medical and mental health care; failure to manage and dispense pharmaceuticals; and failure to supervise inmates, according to a Jan. 7 letter sent to the jail’s superintendent.

The review committee has recommended the facility be placed on “probationary certification” for two years and develop and implement a written corrective plan. If the jail does not meet certification requirements after the two-year period, the corrections board would decertify the jail.

The review committee has invited jail officials to appear at the panel’s March 18 meeting to appeal or discuss the preliminary findings before they are presented to the full Board of Corrections for final disposition.


BOB BROWN 

Supporters of Senate Bill 868, known as the Virginia Values Act, gathered for a photo on Thursday. The Senate passed the bill, which would grant nondiscrimination protections to Virginians based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The flag on the left is for transgender pride, and the flag on the right is the Philadelphia pride flag, which adds black and brown stripes to the standard rainbow pride flag to represent people of color.


Z-no-digital
Note to readers

Note to readers

To accommodate today’s Black History Month advertising supplement, your Times-Dispatch news report is split into two sections (A and B). They are followed by Friday Fun (C) and Sports (D).


BOB BROWN 

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, sponsored the Virginia Values Act. Ebbin became the state’s first openly gay legislator after he was elected in 2003.


Crime
breaking
Richmond man charged in carjacking also was suspect in child rape when released on home monitoring

Antonio Lee Harris, who has a history of gun convictions and probation violations, had been charged in an armed carjacking in November and was suspected in the rape of a 12-year-old girl when a Richmond judge approved his release on bond and his placement on home electronic monitoring.

Harris, 21, is now suspected of committing two more carjackings after he let the batteries die in his GPS monitor and went “AWOL” in December, according to city officials.

It is unclear how much General District Judge David M. Hicks knew about Harris’ criminal history or whether he knew about the rape investigation when he made the bond decision. Hicks declined to comment and said it would be improper to do so on pending matters.

Richmond prosecutors declined to say whether the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office agreed to the terms of Harris’ release on bond, and it could not be determined from an examination of the court record. The defense attorney in the case also declined to comment.

“It’s still a very, very sensitive ongoing investigation,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said Thursday. “Even though the bond matters have been concluded for now, it is part of a larger ongoing picture to hopefully produce the strongest case possible.”

Harris was arrested Sunday and charged with the carjacking of a Lyft driver on Friday night in South Richmond. Police investigators also suspect him of carrying out another carjacking in Richmond on Jan. 24, but he has not been charged in that case.

Police have been investigating whether Friday’s holdup of the Lyft driver on Berwyn Street is connected to four reports of random gunfire over the weekend about 2 miles north in the Hillside Court public housing community, including the fatal shooting on Saturday of 3-year-old Sharmar Hill Jr. as he was playing outside his home.

Before Sharmar was shot, police responded three other times to Hillside Court late Friday and early Saturday for reports of random gunfire. No one was reported injured in those incidents, but police said a vehicle and a doorway were damaged at Hillside.

Police said earlier this week that all of those incidents could be connected, but Chief William C. Smith emphasized in an interview on Thursday that investigators do not know if Harris was involved in the death of Sharmar or whether he was at the scene of the crime.

Smith said the entire police department is aware of the importance of the investigation.

“We give 100% on every single homicide,” the chief said.

He added: “A child’s death, it impacts us differently.”

Smith also called on the public to provide investigators with key information to help them solve the tragic case. Anyone with information is asked to contact police Detective J. Fultz at (804) 646-3929 or Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000.

***

A fuller picture emerged this week of Harris’ alleged activities over the past few months, before and after he was placed on home electronic monitoring. An examination of court records and interviews with city officials and law enforcement authorities has established the following timeline:

Less than two weeks before Harris was arrested and charged with the first carjacking, a Richmond detective on Nov. 10 began investigating a report that Harris had raped a 12-year-old girl, according to a police affidavit filed in Richmond Circuit Court.

The affidavit was seeking a DNA sample from Harris to compare with evidence recovered from the alleged sexual assault. Harris has not been charged in the case, and authorities are awaiting DNA results as part of their investigation.

Another police affidavit gave the following account of the Nov. 20 carjacking:

The victim said he agreed to give three people a ride in his pickup truck in exchange for heroin and that after he drove them around for about 3½ hours, he decided to drop them off.

The driver told police that his front-seat passenger had a gun and told him, “Pull over, pull over right here or I’ll shoot you.” After the driver complied with that demand, his phone was taken and the three people left in his pickup.

Later, police spotted the stolen pickup and tried to stop it. The vehicle fled and after it was abandoned, police spotted Harris walking on the street. His clothes matched the description of those worn by the armed carjacker, the affidavit said.

Harris admitted to police that he was driving the pickup when police were behind him but said he did not know he was being pursued, according to the affidavit.

Harris was charged with carjacking and felony eluding police and was granted bond on Dec. 5 and given permission to be placed on home electronic monitoring. The program is administered by the Adult Pretrial Services Division, part of the Richmond Department of Justice Services.

However, Harris was held in jail through Dec. 17 because the defendant’s mother said her son could not live with her, which initially made him ineligible for the home monitoring program.

Someone else agreed to host Harris at a home in Hillside Court that is one block from where Sharmar would be shot several weeks later, according to court papers and a city official.

A GPS device was placed on Harris’ ankle on Dec. 18. He reported as instructed the following day for a meeting at the home electronic monitoring office.

A few days later, on Christmas, staff members with Pretrial Services received a technological alert that Harris had moved outside the mandated area. Ultimately, Harris let the battery die and did not respond to staff members’ efforts to contact him, the officials said. With the battery dead, his location could no longer be tracked.

On Dec. 26, a written command known as a capias was issued ordering the Richmond police to arrest Harris because he had violated the terms of his supervision and was “AWOL.”

On Sunday, two days after the carjacking of the Lyft driver, police spotted Smith outside a nightclub in downtown Richmond and chased him on foot, Chief Smith said Thursday.

Harris got into a car and fled, leading to a vehicle pursuit, Smith said. At some point, he got out of the car and officers apprehended him.

Smith said he could not immediately say whether his officers were actively searching for Harris from Dec. 26, the day the capias was issued for his arrest, until he was captured on Sunday.

“We’re always looking for persons who have warrants,” Smith said.

The chief added that the home electronic monitoring program is a good one, but that “Mr. Harris actively worked to subvert that process.”

He said there are times “when we allow people the benefit of the doubt when maybe we shouldn’t.”

“It’s easy to say that in hindsight,” he said.

But the chief did not second-guess Judge Hicks’ decision to release Harris on bond in December.

“I know that we are, as a city and a society, trying to look at alternatives to incarceration,” he said.

Smith also pointed out that the victim in the Nov. 20 carjacking initially had been driving around with the other individuals for hours before his pickup was stolen, a fact that might have been considered by the judge when he made the bond decision.

“Everybody involved knew one another,” Smith said.

The city’s Pretrial Services division has an average of 125 to 130 individuals on home electronic monitoring at any one time, city officials said Thursday.

The officials also acknowledged that some of those suspects are charged with violent crimes, but they said they could not immediately provide a list of all the charges those suspects face.

Meanwhile, Harris appeared in court on Wednesday morning for another bond hearing, this time for the carjacking and firearm charges stemming from Friday’s holdup of the Lyft driver.

Richmond prosecutor Brooke Pettit said she argued against bond to General District Judge David E. Cheek Jr.

She told the judge that Harris had been out on home electronic monitoring and had violated those terms, indicating that he is a flight risk and danger to the community. She also told Cheek that a charge of carjacking carries a presumption against bond under Virginia law.

The judge ordered Harris to jail without bond.