Councilman Billy Harrison paid $28,000
to settle sexual assault complaint
Incident occurred before he was elected to city council
City Councilman Billy Harrison repeatedly refused to explain his side of the story or be interviewed. He stated in an email reply:
"I received your inquiry. Please be advised that I will not dignify your scurrilous inquiry with a response. If you choose to proceed with this subject, I suggest that you should consult counsel with regard to the laws of defamation."
Lawyer and current City Councilman William W. (Billy) Harrison Jr. paid $28,000 to a former employee for what she said was a sexual assault.
The assault occurred the night of March 12, 1990 in the linen/laundry room of the EconoLodge Motel, 2968 Shore Drive, when the employee went to get a pillow for a motel guest.
She was cornered by Harrison who demanded she have sex with him. She rebelled. He grabbed her, ripped part of her bathing suit top, left marks on her neck.
The 5-foot-2 104-pound woman escaped by slugging Harrison between the eyes with her fist and running away.
Another employee confirmed that her clothing was torn or damaged and her neck contained a bruise and that Harrison appeared intoxicated.
The story has been kept covered up until now by a confidentiality agreement the woman was required to sign as part of an out of court settlement with Harrison.
A spokesman for the Virginia Bar Association said, not about this particular situation, but of such agreements in general, that they are of little value when they involve a potential crime.
The woman who lived next door to the motel with her husband and daughters 9 and 15 didn't tell her husband about the assault when it occurred.
Harrison told me, "You may have won the battle, but I'll win the war." The next day he came back and said, "What do you think about being taken off salary?" I told him, "I don't care...I don't need your money...".
She'd been working 60-70 hours a week, she said. She was cut from 7 days a week to 1 hour a day for 2 days after the incident. "I was cut back to 13 hours a week," she said.
After the linen room incident she was moody, would break into tears easily. Other employees were sympathetic with her.
About 3 weeks after the incident, the night desk clerk took it upon herself to call the victim's husband and tell him the whole story.
The husband said, "I told her at the time, youíll either prosecute him or Iíll kill him." (The husband never met and never saw Billy Harrison to know him).
That was why, the woman said, she never told her husband about Harrison's earlier attempts to have sex with her. "I was afraid heíd kill him (Harrison) and Iíd be left with the two children by myself," she said.
The couple started seeking out lawyers. She said she told her story 'to about a dozen or so lawyers.' All of them turned her down because of who her attacker was. She said they did not want to take on Harrison or his law firm.
Finally she drafted a classified ad she planned to try to run in the Virginian-Pilot: "I need a lawyer - someone not afraid to fight William Harrison Jr. of Willcox & Savage, PC for sexual assault and harassment, also not afraid to fight a large hotel chain."
It was handwritten on the front of a file folder she carried around.
Eventually she found Linda Laibstain of Hofheimer Nusbaum, P.C. who agreed to take the case, but with limitations: She would not bring legal action against Harrison, but did agree to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. She was paid, the woman said, $9,000 of the $28,000 settlement she negotiated.
Harrison is a lawyer in the Willcox & Savage firm.
Involved in a number of controversial and, at times, questionable deals that came before council, he is not seeking re-election because his firm last year adopted a policy prohibiting their attorneys from holding elective office.
The woman who had the encounter with Harrison said she was told she is prohibited from discussing the details of the specific incident by a confidentiality agreement.
The woman (whom VNS agreed not to identify) did however relate details of the attempted assault to others and numerous lawyers prior to signing the agreement.
One lawyer familiar with the case quipped: "It was the most expensive piece of a-- Billy never got."
In a letter written to employ Ms. Laibstain, prior to the confidentiality agreement, she wrote: "As an employee of the EconoLodge ... I have a complaint and claim against William Harrison Jr., one of its owners, for sexual harassment, details of which I have furnished you.
"I fully understand that neither you nor your firm is willing to institute legal action against Mr. Harrison on the said claim because of your longstanding relationship with many of the partners in his law firm.
"However, I would like to employ you for reasonable compensation, not to exceed 25% of any recovery, to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with Mr. Harrison. If this cannot be successfully managed, I shall be free to seek other counsel of my own choosing to litigate the matter if I elect to do so. I am fully aware of your position and your unwillingness to participate in any litigation of the claim."
When first asked to explain why she couldnít institute legal action against Harrison, but could take the womanís money to negotiate an out-of-court agreement, Ms. Laibstain said, "I generally donít talk to reporters."
Rule 1.2 of the code of ethics allows lawyers to limit representation of clients, providing the clients agree.
James McCauley of the Virginia State Bar Association, addressing the issue of representation generally and not this case, said the code of ethics doesn't require a lawyer to represent a client from A-Z. "The key of course is that the client agrees.
"The law," he said, "doesn't require a lawyer to represent a client except as a court appointed attorney. "
McCauley added there is no statue of limitations against filing complaints against lawyers before the bar.
The victim said Ms. Laibstain wrote a 'couple letters' and made a 'couple telephone calls' during the approximately 10 days she was employed.
Laibstain would not discuss the issue. She said in an emailed comment: "It would be highly unethical for me to comment on such a matter, just as I consider it to be highly unethical of you to threaten me if I do not comply with your extraordianry [sic] request that I violate a confidence."
The victim said she was not promiscuous and did not flirt.
Her life, she said was ruined by her encounters with Harrison. Harrison, however, went on to a political career being elected to the Virginia Beach City Council in 1994 and has served since - reaching the level of top powerbroker.
She went to work at the motel even before it opened.
"Virginia Beach was a good place for the girls," the ex-husband said, "a good place to live. The schools were good and we were allowed to use the swimming pool.
"We enjoyed it, but unfortunately there are people out there who think because they have a little money, they can do whatever they want.
"Emotionally, I donít know who it bothered the most, her or me," the ex-husband said.
They never received an apology, the ex-husband said because the lawyers the were dealing with told them ëhe (Harrison) felt bad enough, and you know, that was all theyíd say."
"I think a lot of people (the couple talked to about the case) knew this individual (Harrison) and they just wanted to hush it up and get us gone....He was a very powerful individual.
"We just put the whole period out of our minds...that was the thing. We felt the only way to get through it was to do that. But still it wasnít right. It just wasnít right for a man to take...(advantage of a woman) just because he had a little money," said the ex-husband.
The couple were hardworking. They were unsophisticated in the ways of the legal world. They were frustrated, the woman said, in trying to find someone whoíd help them understand the extent of their rights and options under the law.
They were married in May 1982 and divorced several years ago partly over their experiences in Virginia Beach.
The woman said, "From the first day I worked there, he started hitting on me.
"From day one, he came over and said, ëHi, how you doing? My name is Bill and Iím the owner.
"The harassment started immediately, letting me know how cute I was, etc."
"Over time," she said, "he became more and more aggressive and demanding. Once he told me ëyou work for me. This is my damn hotel and you are going to bed with me. All of my employees do what I say.í I told him, ëNo, Iím not. He asked, ëWhy not?í And I said, ëBecause you are Billy (Harrison).í"
Living next door made working at the motel convenient. She loved the job. She did the laundry. Ran the front desk. Changed the beds. Mowed the grass and cleaned the pool.
"I was 5'-2" tall, skinny, with long natural blond hair. One day I was standing near the swimming pool spraying down the parking lot about 2-2:30 p.m." when Harrison drove up in his black Lexus. "He told me, ëI just love to see a girl sweat, it makes my d--k hard.í He was sitting in the car playing with himself."
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Both said they are still ëterribly disturbedí that a man of Harrisonís position could abuse it and never be called to account.
Virginia News Source has spent almost a year investigating the reports. The story is based on documents obtained and interviews.
While not seeking re-election, Harrison has worked as a 'kingmaker,' personally going out and digging post holes to erect signs and raising money for Robert Mandigo in a successful bid to unseat Kempsville Borough City Councilman Don Weeks in 2000. He worked aggressively for others who were elected that year.
In this year's race, he is working on behalf of Page Lea, a candidate for 1 of 2 at-large seats, and Jim Wood, who is running for Harrison's Lynnhaven Borough seat. A third candidate, Peter Schmidt, reportedly backed by Harrison, denied he has any role in his campaign.