Sept. 21 may well have been Black Friday.
Beginning with a morning news release by Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's press secretary that stops just millimeters from directly accusing City Council President William Pantele of "a pattern of 'porn site' visits" from his city office, the Wilder administration appears to be embarking on a Soviet-style purge of its enemies.
The press release -- which was not sent to Pantele's office and which he was not informed of prior to its publication -- comes on his 16th wedding anniversary. Despite repeated attempts by Style, Pantele could not be reached for comment.
The day had just begun.
Just after noon, City Council liaisons began receiving calls from an assistant for Wilder's appointed acting chief administrative officer, Harry Black. The caller requested that the council liaisons schedule appointments with Black to re-interview for their jobs.
According to one liaison who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, Black informed him that failing to schedule the interview would remove him from consideration for the position. It would also result in termination from city employment. No indication was given whether that termination would be immediate, the liaison says.
Earlier this summer, Black informed City Council employees that they would have to reapply for their jobs or be terminated. All but one employee, who was fired, reapplied on the advice of City Council's lawyer. That lawyer, according to some liaisons who received today's notice, advised them to set an interview appointment, but to remind the CAO's office that the matter is being litigated.
Earlier this summer, City Council filed a lawsuit against Wilder, Black and the city's human resources director over the attempt to exert hiring control over Council employees. A court hearing date for Nov. 20 and 21 was announced earlier this week, leading some city employees to speculate on the timing of Black's latest notification.
Meanwhile, rumors began swirling around noon that Wilder would order the city's Department of Public Works to enter Richmond Public Schools offices on the top floors of City Hall at 7:30 p.m. and begin moving the school system's administrative offices from there to offices for which Black signed a lease agreement earlier this month. That lease is for 3600 W. Broad St., and Black confirmed to news media earlier this week that he's already paid more than $90,000 to the company that owns the building.
Antoinette Essa, the Department of Public Works' provisional spokeswoman, was unable to comment on whether city workers had received orders to begin moving schools offices.
Schools spokeswoman Felicia Cosby says she received a call at 4:30 p.m. from a woman in Wilder's press secretary's office. "She said we have to be out of the building at 5 p.m. today," Cosby says. "She said the building would not be accessible to anyone -- any city employees -- and the offices would be locked until 7:30 Monday morning."
The caller advised Cosby to inform employees to remove personal effects and any items they might need to work on over the weekend. "I asked her why and she said she didn't know," Cosby says. "I asked if this was just public schools and she said she didn't know and that the whole building would be locked."
School Board member Carol Wolf was on her way out of City Hall at a few minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline and says schools administration has placed "No Trespassing" signs around their 14th through 17th floors of City Hall.
"There are signs up all around that are notices to trespassers -- that you're not allowed on this property unless you are a Richmond Public Schools employee or unless you have written permission from the Superintendent's office," Wolf says. "Signs have been put on all the file cabinets that they contain confidential information. They promise prosecution for trespass."
Wolf says that some of the schools employees she spoke with are not packing their belongings and anticipate being back in the office Monday morning.
"I've heard of a lot of things going on today," Councilman Bruce Tyler says. "Fortunately, my name hasn't been associated with any of them yet. Who knows what's been going on on my computer."
He refers to the mayor's press release, which indicated an investigation had found "a pattern of 'porn site' usage on City Hall computers" in Pantele's office, and that the information had been forwarded to the Richmond Police Department.
Immediately after receiving a copy of the press release, City Council spokesman Steve Skinner went to Pantele's City Hall office. "His door was wide open his computer was on and logged on and he hasn't been in in three days," Skinner says.
"We will expect the fullest cooperation from Mr. Pantele," Black says in the press release, "as he himself has been quoted as saying that such behavior is inexcusable." Earlier this month, Wilder's office announced it had discovered city contractors had used city telephones to place "sexy calls" to singles lines found in the classified advertising section of Style Weekly.
Pantele was only told of the accusations when he received a call from a local reporter, according to someone who works in his City Council office.
An employee in his office says Pantele's log-in password is no secret and that his and other City Hall computers are far from secure. Pantele's password is posted on a Post-It note on his computer monitor, the employee says.
Councilman Tyler declined to speculate on whether Wilder's latest moves were politically motivated, but he did say that there was a clear attempt to move the focus away from more important city business.
"No one elected anyone on council or the mayor to create this kind of havoc," Tyler says. "They elected us to move this city forward and it's extremely unfortunate that one person has chosen not to go forward with that mandate. I hope when another day comes forward and we have an opportunity to elect new officials for the city of Richmond, I hope the voters will think long and hard about who they are electing and why.
"Maybe it is a Black Friday," Tyler says. "You might want to talk to Mr. Black about it."
Black had not returned calls for comment by press time.
Staff reporter Amy Biegelsen contributed to this report.