Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
A Republican delegate and a Democratic senator huddled in the corner of a courtroom Tuesday afternoon, trying to make out what was said on a garbled audio recording that captured some of the expletives hurled in a heated altercation last month in a Richmond radio studio.
“Is that: ‘I will f**king knock you down’?” asked Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, a lawyer who was representing two radio producers seeking restraining orders against Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond.
As a judge looked on, Morrissey acknowledged he had said “Get the f**k out of my office” and called the station manager a “fat f**king pig.”
“At no time did I ever say ‘I’ll kick your ass,’” Morrissey insisted on the stand, contradicting the testimony offered by the radio employees, who said Morrissey’s May 4 studio outburst made them fear for their safety.
After a hearing that lasted more than four hours, retired Arlington County judge Thomas Kelley Jr. dismissed the preliminary restraining orders that had been granted against Morrissey over the studio incident, leaving Morrissey free to continue showing up to the South Richmond building that houses both the radio station and his Senate district office.
In an interview afterward, the senator said being Joe Morrissey often means “you have a bullseye on your back.” But he said he prevailed because “multiple observers” backed up his version of the story.
Kelley said he too heard the knockdown comment on the recording but concluded it didn’t rise to the level of overt threat necessary for a permanent restraining order, noting the setup of having a Democrat host a show on a right-wing talk radio network “at the very least is designed to generate controversy.”
“The court is put in the position of looking at what happened,” Kelley said, stressing that he had to look at Morrissey’s comment as one piece of a larger incident.
The incident last month occurred in the middle of a live-streamed episode of the “Fighting Joe Morrissey Show” on WJFN Radio, the network operated by conservative commentator John Fredericks. The show’s branding evokes Morrissey’s combative tendencies, featuring boxing gloves on its logo and incorporating the “Rocky” theme song.
After a newly hired producer, David Pascoe, pressed Morrissey on his stance on abortion rights and the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade, Morrissey lashed out at both Pascoe and the station manager, Derek Clark. The episode has since been removed from the show’s Facebook page, but the video showed a visibly angry Morrissey yelling at coworkers offscreen and his legislative aide at one point grabbing his arm to try to pull him away.
“We saw Mr. Morrissey’s unhingedness. That enough is a threat,” Anderson said, adding that the two men who filed the complaints against Morrissey were raising legitimate “red flags” about disturbing behavior.
The judge denied a request from Morrissey’s lawyer, James Maloney, to collect attorney’s fees from the complainants, indicating he felt there was at least some validity to their claims even if they fell short legally.
During Tuesday’s hearing at the Richmond courthouse, Morrissey and his lawyer characterized the incident as a boisterous workplace reprimand of a new hire who was “undermining” the star of the show. Morrissey compared the incident to “an underling telling Tom Brady” how to play quarterback. Pascoe testified Morrissey threatened to “ruin” and “destroy” him, but Morrissey denied making the remarks.
“The words never came out of my mouth,” the senator said on the stand.
The blowup happened on Pascoe’s first day working on Morrissey’s show. While Pascoe claimed that there had been an agreement between Morrissey and himself to have a debate live on air, Morrissey said he had been taken aback by Pascoe’s unexpected interjections.
As someone who had just moved to the area but was aware of Morrissey’s checkered history, which includes a 1991 courthouse fistfight when Morrissey was Richmond’s top prosecutor, Pascoe said he was “sitting there aghast” watching a state senator erupt over being asked a political question.
“I’ve never had anybody in a professional setting act like this before… I left the studio because I didn’t feel safe,” Pascoe said.
The judge quickly dismissed Pascoe’s request for a restraining order but allowed a more in-depth examination of Clark’s request since the two producers claimed Morrissey made more direct verbal threats toward Clark.
Clark said he had called the police to the studio after an incident he believed could amount to assault. But after police said he would have to take further action to try to bring charges against Morrissey, he chose to wait and seek advice from lawyers and his employer. He and Pascoe ultimately sought preliminary restraining orders on May 20. The station also briefly brought in armed security guards for their protection, according to court testimony. Morrissey dismissed the guards’ presence as “bizarre.”
Many of the arguments presented in court hinged on video and audio recording evidence of the altercation, including the clip of the Facebook Live stream that was being broadcast at the time, as well as recordings captured by a reporter present outside the studio. Both sides agreed that the speech in question was sometimes “inaudible,” and that the video recording didn’t fully capture what occurred.
The dispute also centered on the question of who stood up from their chair first and who moved farther around the desk to confront the other person. Morrissey initially chastised Pascoe for suggesting the senator supported overturning Roe “in a roundabout way” but turned his ire toward Clark after Clark told Morrissey his behavior toward Pascoe was out of line.
Morrissey’s lawyer conceded the senator had used “colorful language” and said the episode may show a less-than-harmonious workplace, but argued there had been no serious threat of violence because Morrissey never touched the two men even though they were only separated by a desk.
“There was nothing preventing Mr. Morrissey from doing any kind of assaultive behavior he wanted,” Maloney said.
Clark testified that he had intervened to defend an employee who was being berated and calm the situation down.
“I was scared,” Clark said. “I thought he was going to hit me.”
But Morrissey and a witness called by Morrissey’s side, whose testimony the judge said he didn’t find credible, insisted it was Clark and Pascoe who had been the aggressors.
“It looked like Morrissey was about to get beat up by two guys,” said Tiffany Wilson, who testified she had been in the studio that day with a guest set to be interviewed in a later segment.
Morrissey and Wilson both claimed the aide who took Morrissey by the arm had been trying to get the senator out of the studio to prepare for the upcoming interview, but Anderson argued it didn’t make sense for the show’s host to leave the room during a brief commercial break.
Wilson said she had not watched the video of the incident she was testifying about.
Two other people at the radio station that day, a receptionist and a man who works for Morrissey’s jury consulting business, testified they never heard Morrissey make any threats, though both acknowledged they didn’t see or hear the entire incident.
Morrissey’s team tried to argue a size difference between Morrissey and Clark meant Clark had no reason to feel intimidated, but the judge said he felt physical stature was irrelevant.
“A small person can be intimidating,” Kelley said. “A big person can not be intimidating.”
After the hearing, Anderson said his clients would consider an appeal.
“It’s an unfortunate circumstance that we had to all go through this,” he said.
After denying under oath that he threatened Clark, Morrissey expressed no remorse over the incident while speaking to reporters in a courtroom hallway.
“If a 350-pound bully gets in my face… yeah, I’ll knock him down,” Morrissey said.
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