Ex-official alleges improper behavior

Published 8:27 pm Thursday, September 2, 2010

Claiming now that she was forced to resign her position, Sharon Thornhill, who abruptly and with no public explanation left her office as Suffolk’s voter registrar on Aug. 6, says she had received a sexually inappropriate email from a member of the Electoral Board in the months prior to her departure.

In April, Thornhill received an email on her city account from an address that appeared to belong to David Sylvia, the secretary of the Suffolk Electoral Board, a three-member board that supervises the work of the voter registrar.

Titled “14 steps to putting on a bikini,” the email depicted a naked woman having body paint applied over the span of 14 different frames. The email distribution list indicated that it was sent to Ken Carpenter, the chairman of the Suffolk Electoral Board, and four other men.

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“That really hurt me,” Thornhill said. “I was the only woman it was sent to.”

Sylvia has been on the board in various capacities for about 15 years. Thornhill worked in the voter registrar’s office for 27 years, the last three of them as the voter registrar.

Reached by phone Thursday, Sylvia acknowledged the allegations were serious, but would not comment.

“I’m not sure I should make a comment,” he said. “There is so much more involved in this at this particular point, I cannot comment.”

The email, obtained by the Suffolk News-Herald from two different sources, includes 14 photos in chronological order. The first picture is a completely nude woman, arms raised, with a white wall and a door in the background.

The following photos feature a man applying body paint depicting a floral-print bikini to the woman’s chest, genitals and buttocks.

The email was first sent on April 24 at 10:28 a.m., according to the date and time stamp on copies obtained by the News-Herald. On May 11, Thornhill forwarded the email from her city account to her personal account. On Aug. 26, she forwarded it to City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn.

“I was scared,” Thornhill said. “It looked like I was entertaining that kind of thing. At that time, I didn’t know what to do.”

Thornhill said she reported the email to Ronnie Charles, Suffolk’s director of human resources, and to state Electoral Board officials.

Nancy Rodrigues, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, did not return a message seeking comment Thursday.

Thornhill said she confronted Sylvia about the email, and he apologized. She doesn’t think he sent it by accident, she said.

“He didn’t apologize until I confronted him,” she said.

Thornhill’s husband, Waverly Thornhill, said he also confronted Sylvia about the email, and Sylvia acknowledged it was not appropriate.

That confrontation occurred on Aug. 6, when Thornhill called her husband and told him she was being forced to resign.

“It was done so abruptly,” Thornhill said. The Electoral Board members arrived that afternoon, demanded her keys and brought boxes to pack her belongings, she said. A police officer also was brought to the scene to escort her out, she said.

In Thornhill’s message to Cuffee-Glenn, she included the forwarded email with a note at the top.

“Mr. Sylvia was afraid I would turn this over to a lawyer and to you,” Thornhill wrote. “City Manager Cuffee-Glenn, do you think it is professional to have someone on a board for the city sending this kind of email on a city email system?”

The local Electoral Board members are appointed by Circuit Court judges. The Electoral Board then hires the voter registrar.

In an Aug. 27 letter, Cuffee-Glenn made City Council members aware of the situation.

“The email in question contained several inappropriate and graphic photographs of a nude individual,” the city manager wrote. “A similar action by a supervisor or employee of the city of Suffolk, if determined to be founded, would result in disciplinary action, including possible termination. However, the Electoral Board and the Registrar are under the control of the State Board of Elections and are independent from the city.”

Cuffee-Glenn added the State Board of Elections had been notified.