Councilor, ex-staffer claim mayor knew of assistant's criminal past; she denies and calls it 'a public spectacle'

HOPEWELL — A city councilor and a former city employee are disputing Mayor Jasmine E. Gore’s claim that she was unaware of pending criminal charges against a woman she publicly endorsed for a newly created part-time assistant position with City Council.

In separate interviews with The Progress-Index, Councilor John B. Partin Jr. and assistant city clerk Debra McKnight said that the mayor did, in fact, know about Patrice Shelton’s upcoming court case. McKnight, who recently tendered her resignation, said she told Shelton face-to-face that “everyone deserves a second chance, but [Shelton] had to tell the mayor because the mayor was backing her.”

Partin, who represents Hopewell’s Ward 3, said McKnight’s letter of resignation, which was sent to City Manager John M. Altman Jr. and circulated among councilors, “points out the mayor knew about it, and never brought to council’s attention.”

Meanwhile, Gore is fighting back against the allegations, calling it a politically driven effort to undermine her leadership and create “an unnecessary damaging headline for the city of Hopewell “

Shelton, a former state Department of Corrections employee, was indicted in September of attempting to pass illegal drugs, including heroin, to a prisoner at the Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn. She also was indicted on one count of bribery of a public official.

A court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 25.

Shelton originally was arrested on the charges in 2018. Those charges were not prosecuted at the time, but the door was left open for future prosecution of them if warranted..

Shelton took part in a Hopewell workforce development program over the summer and caught Gore’s attention. At the end of the summer, Gore backed Shelton for a new council assistant position, even though some of her colleagues said they did not feel they needed one.

She ‘heard’ the mayor mention it

McKnight’s resignation letter, which was obtained by The Progress-Index, mentions a list of 10 “problems” with working in the City Clerk's office, “and “the mayor’s intern was another problem.” McKnight wrote in the letter that Shelton had informed her personally about the charges, and “I told her she had to tell the mayor about her situation so that the mayor could tell council before they hired her." The letter stated that Shelton did tell Gore about the charges, but McKnight wrote that when council hired Shelton, "I assumed that everyone knew and was OK with her record.”

In a sit-down interview with The Progress-Index, McKnight confirmed the letter’s authenticity. She said Shelton had stopped by her house to pick up some tires and told her about the charges then.

“I told her that everyone deserves a second chance, but she had to tell the mayor because the mayor was backing her,” McKnight remembered. McKnight added that she knows Shelton told the mayor based on a conversation she overheard between Gore and the city clerk.

“I heard her talking about it to the clerk,” McKnight said. “And that was before she went to Council requesting that her intern be hired. Now, the mayor is saying she didn’t know and trying to deflect and blame everyone else instead of addressing the real issue. And that is that she knew before she asked for council’s support and didn’t inform council.”

Councilors knew

Partin, in a separate interview, said he and other councilors were informed about Shelton’s serious drug charges at the same time, though he could not disclose where and how that information was brought forward.

“Conversations with city employees and through email traffic between city employees and the mayor show that Mayor Gore knew about the charges while she was employed,” Partin said. “And also Mrs. McKnight’s letter of resignation points out the mayor knew about it, and never brought to council’s attention.”

Partin said Gore is being untruthful about not knowing about the situation, as she stated in a phone interview with The Progress-Index on Oct. 23. He was among the three councilors who voted against hiring Shelton, and he said he voted that way because he did not feel an intern was needed. Additionally, he claimed the $15 per-hour pay Shelton was being hired at was more than some full-time city employees make.

“I take care of things myself,” Partin said. “I don’t need an intern to do task that I can perfectly do myself while focusing on the needs of the city, and not people’s wants and personal pet projects.”

One of those “pet projects” Partin mentioned is the current “I Love Hopewell” marketing campaign championed by Gore. Shelton, Partin claimed, was being hired to work on that.

“Essentially, this position is and was always the mayor’s intern,” he said.

Mayor unaware of ‘new’ charges

When contacted by The Progress-Index for comment, Gore said she was not aware of the “new" accusations against Shelton.

“I was not made aware of the new charges for Ms. Shelton, the council Intern, until two members of City Council shared the information with the governing body,” Gore stated in a chain of emails with the newspaper. “One of the two councilors admitted, in writing, about knowing of the charges some time prior to notifying the entire City Council. This information was also provided to other city administrators.”

The mayor did not name the councilors she referred to in her email responses to several questions on the matter.

“Since this position was created and voted on as a council hire, we should have been equally notified of this councilor’s discovery and the matter at hand should have respectfully been handled with professionalism,” Gore added. “As Ms. Shelton’s supervisor, I should have been notified directly by the councilor with knowledge of the new charges when they were discovered as well as City Council.”

She said she thinks the whole issue is an effort to undermine her leadership, “in an unnecessary damaging headline for the City of Hopewell and has humiliated a young individual over a part-time four month long internship. Concerns should have been addressed properly since Ms. Shelton had not been committed of a crime as opposed to playing politics with a city employee.”

Is she or isn’t she?

Because it is a city personnel matter, no one is stating for the record if Shelton still is employed by the city.

Gore has repeatedly declined to comment on the status. Partin said only that the council assistant had not reported to the Municipal Building in a week.

City Attorney Sandra R. Robinson explained as a policy she does not respond to media questions.

Since the news broke about Shelton’s charges, Gore said she supported the creation of an employment policy to eliminate this behavior for future council hires, although she did not elaborate on the reasons why.

“It is unfortunate that this matter could have been addressed with members of City Council in a proper briefing instead of providing it to media outlets for a public spectacle,” Gore said.

Adrienne Wallace is a news correspondent for The Progress-Index.