Almost two months after Portsmouth Councilman Mark Whitaker was indicted on 20 felony charges of identity fraud, forgery and using forged checks, he still has strong support among many of the city’s residents.
His support is strongest among African Americans and some Whites who do not believe that the long time public servant could have been involved in any illegal activities.
Whitaker has respect among Black voters and civic leaders for giving an usually strong voice to economic and social issues they have been concerned about over the years.
At the same time that voice has irked some of his fellow council members and many Black and White residents who believe he should take a more diplomatic tone.
Recently the Guide talked to a number of residents to assess the level of support, or lack thereof of, for the embattled Councilman.
Views ranged from admiration and sympathy to disdain from people the GUIDE talked to on the record.
A special grand jury is impaneled to hear evidence about Whitaker’s church, New Bethel Baptist Church, its development company and its now-defunct credit union which are central to the indictments.
The special grand jury heard evidence about Whitaker’s alleged activities between August 2013 to October 2014 with the New Bethel Baptist Church, where he is a pastor and a credit union, which is now closed.
The panel handed down 11 counts of alleged forgery, seven “uttering a forged check” and two identity fraud.
Three people were identified as victims in the paperwork – Kevin Blount, Caroline Larosiliere and Malinda Starkley. New Bethel’s website lists a Malinda Starkley as a deacon.
Whitaker will stand trial in November.
Meanwhile, he has refused to resign from council, continued to work at his church, and contrary to rumors, he was not dismissed from his duties as a Professor at Hampton University. In fact, he said that his contract has been approved for next year.
He said there are people who are making contributions to a defense fund set up to help him pay for his legal bills.
“I have received support not only locally, but from around the state and nationally,” said Whitaker recently during a brief interview with the Guide. “I am still at work, and working with my colleagues and at home with my family and church.”
Until the trial begins, questions will continue to be raised about the role that Sheriff William “Bill” Watson played in the process leading up to the investigation and eventual indictment in April.
The Sheriff’s department traditionally handles securing the city’s court rooms, managing its jail and process serving. But many residents are concerned about the role the Sheriff played in the Whitaker situation and if indeed he had legal jurisdiction, considering the bitter feud that has existed for years between him and Councilman Whitaker.
“Most of the people, in circles I travel, support Mr. Whitaker although they may have disagreed with his positions in the past,” said James Bailey, a leader in the city’s NAACP and the Regional Director of “Missing Voter Project” which advocates for helping people returning from prisons regain their voting rights
“Like other people, I never heard of a sheriff instigating an investigation of that kind against a sitting city official,” Bailey continued. “So there must have been some political motivations … How did he use all of those channels to make it happen? I am supportive of him (Whitaker) because we stand for the same issues.”
Rev. Anthony Paige, the senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church Lambert’s Point in Norfolk, said he is planning on organizing a fundraising event for Whitaker’s Legal Defense Fund.
“In fact, I want to enlist all of the religious, civic and social organizations in this region to come to his defense,” said Paige. “This was a vicious and political attack against Mr. Whitaker because they’re not used to speaking directly and forcefully on the issues in that city.”
Paige said he has known Whitaker for nearly three decades. He said that the Councilman’s father, who was born and raised in Norfolk’s Lambert’s Point community, was ordained in the church he now leads.
“So I, and others in this community, have a long history with Mr. Whitaker and his family,” said Paige. “This is why there is such large and unwavering support for him.”
Former Portsmouth Mayor Kenneth Wright, who lost his reelection bid last November after months of political and policy warfare with the Sheriff, said he applauds the support the community is extending to Whitaker, as well.
Wright and Whitaker were two of the most outspoken critics of the Sheriff and his political allies during his tenure. At one point, Sheriff Watson with a local tv crew in tow, chased the mayor’s car over an expired city sticker after a stake out at a city garage.
“I support him (Whitaker) 100 percent,” said Wright. “I am pleased with the outpouring of community support! We need everybody who believes in justice to chip in (to the defense fund). I strongly believe that we, the citizens, should take care of his legal expenses and show the Sheriff the door in November.”
Costella Williams, a leader of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Steering Committee, said that “all of the people I talk to see this case against Whitaker as a political witch hunt.”
“Most of the people in my circle are very disappointed, “ she said. “I talked to Ken Stolle, the sheriff in Virginia Beach and he said that no sheriff would have done such a thing if the police chief did not.”
Williams said Whitaker attended a meeting of the city’s Democratic Caucus and when recognized, “he received a standing ovation from everyone in that room.”
Barry Randall, who ran an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2016, said he has had his disagreements with Whitaker over the years. Although he does not directly support Whitaker, he has concerns about the process in which the charges were brought against him.
He said that instead of the Sheriff prodding investigators to look into Whitaker’s situation, the city’s police or Commonwealth’s Attorney “could have put a stop to this.”
“This is very troublesome, “ said Randall. “White folks can’t get to a Black leader unless Black people let them. What message will this send if he is found guilty come November?”
But there are Portsmouth residents who have had issues with Whitaker since he took office.
Donna Sayegh, who is a Virginia Patriot, has been critical of him for supporting the removal of the confederate monuments in the city, among other issues. She said she has confronted him directly through e-mails after council meetings.
“I don’t think he has a sense of justice or compassion,” said Sayegh. “He is so opinionated and full of hate. He does not want to establish positive relationships with others; he just wants to be in control.
Maggie McGuire is another White resident who said she, too, has gotten “in his face” before council on various issues,
“He is a very smart man but all he does is cause hate. I wish he would try to bring the city together,” she said.
“Black and White people in Portsmouth all want the same things – safe neighborhoods, strong schools and food to eat. I just wish Mr. Whitaker would work harder as a preacher and man of God to bring us together as opposed to separating us.”
Mark Geduldig-Yatrofsky, who also ran for a council seat last year, said although he does not always agree with the positions Whitaker takes on various issues, he is willing to give the embattled Councilman the benefit of the doubt.
“I have difficulty believing that Councilmember Whitaker would have engaged in criminal activity of any kind,” he said. “I am also skeptical that the investigators – deputies whose continued employment is tied directly to Sheriff Watson‘s favorable opinion of them – were people whose only agenda was searching for the truth.
“Furthermore, piling on charges is not uncommon when ‘the system’ wants to take someone down. I hope that the moral arc of the universe starts bending more sharply toward justice. I have contributed to Whitaker’s legal defense fund and am sorry that he and his family are undergoing this ordeal.”