Norfolk Treasurer Anthony Burfoot has been suspended from his duties without pay by order of Norfolk Circuit Court Judge Everett Martin. The judge issued his 11-page decision based on a petition filed by Attorney Ron Batliner, a Norfolk lawyer.
Burfoot’s suspension began at 5 p.m. Monday Feb. 20 and continues to April 21, three days after he will be sentenced on six federal counts of corruption while a member of the Norfolk City Council.
The judge’s decision came two days after he had presided over a hearing on Feb. 14 on the merits of Batliner’s petition.
Burfoot, who is appealing his convictions, could resume his duties if a court overturns the convictions.
His attorney Andrew Sacks immediately filed an appeal of Martin’s order and asked for a “Stay.”
The corruption charges against Burfoot were filed a year ago, and there were eight counts. But after a month-long trial, a Norfolk federal court jury found him guilty on six in December.
Since then he has refused to resign.
The judge’s decision was met with applause by his critics, and with some skepticism from Burfoot supporters who said the charges and the sentence were not justified.
Efforts by his opponents to push him from the Treasurer’s office have been ongoing and even the Norfolk City Council voted on a non-binding and symbolic resolution calling for his resignation. Burfoot is an independently elected official and not under the panel’s supervision.
In his order, Martin wrote that if Burfoot were not suspended, the citizens of Norfolk would be continuing to pay his salary although he had been convicted of “Crimes of Dishonesty.”
The judge agreed with Batlinger’s position that Burfoot’s continued presence in the seat and drawing a $164,000 salary would further erode “the trust the residents of the city of Norfolk have that honest men and women administer their government.”
Batliner filed his petition as a citizen and not as a lawyer. He has announced that he will run against incumbent Norfolk Commonwealth Attorney Greg Underwood. He is currently working in the Norfolk Office of the Commissioner of Revenue.
A special account is being set up to house Burfoot’s salary. If he should win during the appeals process, it will be turned over to him.
Burfoot, who is being replaced by the chief deputy city treasurer, was elected the city’s first African-American Treasurer in 2013 after serving on the Norfolk City Council. Burfoot had served as Vice Mayor until he moved over to serve a dual role as Assistant City Treasurer before being elected City Treasurer.
Because most of Burfoot’s illegalities that led to his convictions occurred while he was on council and not Treasurer, he could stay in office until all of his appeals are exhausted in the state and federal courts.
However, Attorney Batliner used a state law which allows for the suspension of an official convicted of a felony.
Judge Martin said he could impose Burfoot’s suspension quickly because the Virginia Code says officials convicted of felonies in a federal court can automatically forfeit their posts or stay in office and exhaust all of their appeals in court, as Burfoot is doing.
Sacks called the decision “premature” because no federal judge has imposed sanctions nor sentenced Burfoot yet.
The leaders of the Norfolk Citizens Recall Committee (NCRC) which collected over 7,000 signatures early last year calling for Burfoot’s ouster via a city court, said they were pleased with the Martin decision.
Norfolk residents Bob Brown, Max Shapiro and John Wesley Hill are the three members of the NCRC’s steering committee calling for Burfoot’s recall from office. The recall effort currently is on hold until May after Burfoot is sentenced in April.
Hill said the trio worked in coordination with Batliner who used the strength of Virginia Codes related to misconduct and suspension of officials: 24.2-231 and 24.2-236.
Hill said if Burfoot is sentenced on April 17 but is still free after April 21 when Judge Martin’s suspension order expires, his recall group will go to court on May 7 to petition for the recall to be heard in Circuit Court.
But Hill and his group hope that chapter in the Burfoot saga will not be written.
The City Treasurer’s job is up for election this year and several people have thrown their hat into the ring to succeed Burfoot, including current State Delegate Daun Hester.
“We are not surprised at the court’s decision,” said Hill, a former Norfolk Police officer and leader in the Norfolk NAACP. “We are just concerned that it was delayed. This should have taken place last May.
But the special prosecutor said the laws were too vague and broad.
“Now that he (Burfoot) is suspended, I think the people of Norfolk will feel better because they have lost all respect and confidence in him. This was a step forward. But it was too long.”
By Leonard E. Colvin