The mayor of Virginia’s capital city stands accused of diverting city resources toward the church he heads, and his defense is unusual: The First Amendment shields him from scrutiny.
In addition to being mayor of Richmond, the Rev. Dwight C. Jones (D) is also senior pastor at First Baptist Church of South Richmond. He was elected mayor in 2008 and since then, city offices have been salted with hires who are also members of First Baptist.
At this point, it is difficult to say whether or not the city employees who are also members of the church are qualified for their positions. But even if they are, there’s a problem: A number of church members who work for the city are accused of conducting church business on the job.
The Richmond Free Press reported in early March that the Richmond Ambulance Authority fired a top official because she was caught doing work for First Baptist during business hours. Pamela J. Branch, who had headed the agency’s human resources and legal departments for several years, was fired for doing volunteer church clerical work on city time. Branch has declined comment on the matter.
Branch’s firing seems to be just the tip of the steeple. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a top city official who resigned in 2015 did so after being pressured to hire a member of First Baptist.
City Finance Chief Norman Butts resigned last June after what he says was an argument with the mayor’s office over the potential hiring of a church member who already worked for the city in another capacity. Butts was allegedly asked to hire Angela Yancey, who was then an administrator in Richmond’s Social Services Department, for an open position in Butts’ office. But Butts already had another candidate in mind after several interviews – and Yancey hadn’t even applied for the job.
Yancey told the Times-Dispatch that she has no knowledge of the disagreement over that finance job. She now works for the Office of Minority Business Development and makes $121,541, the Times-Dispatch said.
As of early January, more than 10 percent of Richmond’s executive-level positions were filled by members of First Baptist.
The allegations surrounding Jones are not limited to his staff. Earlier this year, City Auditor Umesh Dalal issued a report that said Emmanuel Adediran, head of public works for Richmond, supervised renovation work for First Baptist on taxpayer time.
Initially, Dalal’s report cited only a handful of emails that showed Adediran was doing church activities through his work email account. But a short time later, more than 200 additional emails were found showing Adediran had done church work on the job, and some of those communications had been sent to Jones, informing him of the progress on the project.
For his part, Jones has not said much. But in January, he had the audacity to claim that the First Amendment should shield him from investigation.
“I have to question the motives of people who are asking city employees about their religious affiliation. I hope that none of this is politically motivated and that respect can be shown for the wall of separation between church and state,” Jones said.
In mid-March, a grand jury authorized Virginia State Police to examine Jones’ activities. The FBI is also looking into this matter.