Home Virginia Politics Here’s The Big Deal With Phil Puckett’s Resignation and the Federal Investigation

Here’s The Big Deal With Phil Puckett’s Resignation and the Federal Investigation


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The saga of former state Senator Phil Puckett’s resignation continues. Not everybody is happy that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey are investigating it. According to the Richmond-Times Dispatch, a former Virginia attorney general and Democrat, Andrew P. Miller, penned a letter to both Holder and Comey.  Here’s a quote from the RT-Dispatch:

Nothing that has been reported in the media “suggests that any criminal activity has occurred,” writes Miller, who served as attorney general from 1970 to 1977.

In the letter, Miller notes Puckett’s daughter’s quest for the judgeship and asserts that Puckett would be an asset to the commission because his district grows burley tobacco.

“If you will pardon my English,” Miller writes, “big damn deal!”

Miller writes that such transitions from the legislature to executive roles are frequent occurrences in Democratic and Republican administrations.

“Thus, this FBI intrusion into Virginia’s self-government can only be characterized as designed to serve partisan ends.”

I am not a lawyer, so I won’t comment on the legality of the resignation. But I suspect that the federal government has a higher standard for what constitutes ethics than the famed “Virginia Way” politicos do. First remember that five former Virginia AGs – three of whom are Democrats – also filed a brief requesting that charges be dropped against Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen.  In that brief, they stated that federal attorneys overreached and stretched the law.  They saw no illegal activity.  One of those signees was AGs Miller, who also finds no legal or ethical problems here.  All I can say is that the federal government obviously has a higher standards for ethics and legality than these hacks.

Here’s the guidance my General Counsel at Treasury made us follow: We were to avoid any action “that a reasonable person could conclude was a conflict of interest . . .”  And I can assure you that not one of  those general counsel lawyers would have written a court brief or even a letter to an editor defending the actions of either the McDonnells or Phil Puckett and the Virginia GA.

To be sure, former AG Miller is not entirely wrong when he says that transitions from the legislature to the executive branch occur all the time in all administrations. He’s right. They do. In fact, here is a recent example and my take on why it’s completely different from what happened in the Puckett resignation and why in the one case it’s perfectly ethical and in the other both unethical and possibly illegal.

I’m talking about the recent resignations of Sen. Henry Marsh and Del Bob Brink from the General Assembly and their appointment to executive branch cabinet positions.

Let’s compare the two sets of facts.

In the case of both Sen. Marsh and Del. Brink, both men retired after the legislative session ended. And the governor is appointing them to existing positions within the state government that happened to be vacant. Nothing special has been done to create the vacancies. They would be there and need to be filled regardless of what the two GA members did.

In the case of Sen. Puckett, a string of emails obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request shows that the tobacco commission was creating a lucrative position especially for Sen. Puckett.  Of course, he would be well qualified for it. He was invited to submit the job description so it would be tailored to his strengths. So right there, if we go no further, there’s a glaring difference in the two situations. But it gets even more pronounced.

Unlike most cases where a governor appoints somebody to a job, extra benefits accrued to those who did the hiring. Usually when the governor appoints somebody to fill a vacancy, the only benefit he gets is a competent person to do the job and the person filling the vacancy gets a salary, health insurance, and a pension. In other words, it’s a straightforward exchange, just as any hiring situation is. But in the case of Sen. Puckett, those doing the hiring got a few extra rewards, and it is those that might have made it illegal and that surely made it unethical.

In Puckett’s situation, the benefit of creating a job just for him and hiring him was that the power in the state Senate tipped to the Republicans, giving them control of important committees that determine which bills get to the floor for a vote and which are killed in committee. Moreover, it happened right before a high stakes vote on Medicaid expansion that they desperately wanted to win. Much more at stake there than just hiring the services of a competent employee. Here is an imperfect analogy that might help illustrate the point.

If  business people invest in a prizefighter by providing for his training expenses and give him marketing and promotional deals so they all benefit from his victories, that is a straightforward business deal.

But if those same investors offer the fighter money or other benefits on the condition that he throw a fight to an opponent, it suddenly becomes not a business deal but a bribe. That is what Del. Terry Kilgore, the tobacco commission, and Phil Puckett did. Smart enough not to offer an outright bribe of money, they offered him a job and the assurance that his daughter would receive her judgeship if he tanked control of the Senate before an important vote. And that looks like a bribe, not a business deal. And bribes are a very big deal even in Virginia.


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