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HOLMBERG: Mayor Dwight Jones answers questions about his church and city controversy

Posted at 12:57 AM, Jan 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-14 01:54:31-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Wednesday evening Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones chatted with me during what is likely the toughest week of his seven-year tenure.

"It's unfair," he said as we were finishing our visit.

This week the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that a senior city official resigned last year because of pressure to move a member of Dwight Jones' church into a high-ranking position.

The paper also reported that ten percent of Jones' senior staff have ties to the First Baptist Church of South Richmond, where he is senior pastor.

Also, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported, another senior official - the public works director - used his city email account to communicate with contractors who had business with both the city and the church.

First Baptist Church of South Richmond

First Baptist Church of South Richmond

New information indicates that official oversaw church construction on city time.

"When we found out about the (email) incident we took action," Mayor Jones told me. "And there has been some additional information uncovered yesterday. And we're looking at that and when we find out what's going on we will take action for that too."

The week's revelations and subsequent response from city council is exactly what Jones told me and other reporters wouldn't happen when we asked about possible conflicts of interest after his election in late 2008.

He said there would be a wide separation between city hall and the vast, historic church he leads. He didn't want his church body to become a "political football," as he told a TD reporter back then.

That's what it has become.

Mayor Dwight Jones and Mark Holmberg

Mayor Dwight Jones and Mark Holmberg

"But it's not because of me," he said Wednesday evening. "I believe strongly in the separation.  I've worked over very hard over the seven years to make sure there's a separation between what happens at the church and what happens at the city."

I asked him if he feels there needs to be an outside investigation, given there may have been misuse of public funds.

"I really don't," he said.

But State Police could be called in to investigate any potential violations of the state's "misuse of public assets" statute, 18.-112.1.

City auditor Umesh Dalal told me Wednesday they are still investigating and added, "We are in the process of evaluating our legal options."

First Baptist continues building its $5.3 million satellite sanctuary and life center in Chesterfield County, presumably the jobsite the public works director allegedly visited on city time.

I asked the mayor if there is any indication there are contractors who worked for the city as well as for his church.

"Not to my knowledge," he replied.

The mayor is upset that his city staff's church affiliation is being questioned.

"I would never ask you, Mark, what church do you go to? " he said. "That's just not something you are obligated to discuss with me. I just think it's personal. This is the home of religious freedom . . .

"So for anybody to ask me, or any pastor, for their church roll so they can find out who goes to their church, for any reason, is absolutely improper - and illegal," the mayor added.

I countered that it's a natural question when he's both a big-time pastor and the mayor of a substantial city.

"The people who work for me are qualified," he said. "They've gone through a panel . . . they've applied. They've been hired under legal circumstances. I don't see how you can do any more than that.

"Some of the people who are being looked at were there before I got there," the mayor added. And some have risen in the ranks because they were qualified and did a good job . . ."

This story will continue to unfold.

Could this be the mayor's legacy after two terms of amazing growth for a city now widely recognized for its healthy turnaround story?

This same day news broke that Richmond has one of the nation's hottest real estate markets and National Geographic Travel cited the city as a prime food destination.