For months, Pittsylvania County near the North Carolina border has been embroiled in controversy over a proposal by Virginia Uranium, backed by local and Canadian investors, to develop a 119-million pound deposit of uranium near the small town of Chatham.
The battle has taken a new turn. It involves a late-evening telephone call by Virginia Sen. Bill Stanley, a fast-rising Republican politician and ally of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, to a county supervisor — who happened to tape-record the call.
In the 10:30 p.m. Aug. 31 phone call, Stanley asked Pittsylvania Supervisor Jerry A. Hagerman to shelve a resolution involving uranium mining that had just been put on the county board’s Sept. 4 meeting agenda. In the recording played for me, Stanley can be heard to state that McDonnell asked him to contact the board to ask them to dump the resolution because it was not a good time for the county to take a stand on uranium mining.
At one point, Stanley said, “I just got a call from the governor.” At another, he said, “The governor called and said it is very important to reach out.”
“You guys don’t need to vote now,” Stanley told Hagerman. “It can save you big personally and politically and you have control of your conscience.”
“You guys are the superstars right now,” he added.
In the call, Stanley told Hagerman, who is an independent and new in office, “I think you are doing a great job and this is not a battle a politician needs to put his stake in the ground about right now.”
The taped call is an embarrassment for Stanley and McDonnell, whose press secretary has denied that McDonnell ever asked Stanley to lobby the board to shelve the resolution. The board did remove the resolution from its agenda without explanation on Sept. 4. The mildly worded resolution asked that proper regulations be in place if mining proceeds and that a public fund be established to pay damages from any accident.
McDonnell has taken no public position on ending a 30-year-old moratorium on uranium mining in the state. Virginia has no regulations or experience involving mining the radioactive element. McDonnell has formed a study group to make recommendations to him on the issue by year end so he can decide whether to ask the General Assembly to end the mining ban in 2013.
Stanley, who was elected to the newly-formed 20th senatorial district last year, at first told me that McDonnell did not ask him to lobby the board about shelving the resolution but said he did make some calls on his own. He told me that he was concerned that the resolution posted on the board’s Web site was “badly written” and would further alienate mining proponents and opponents.
After I listened to Hagerman’s tape, I tried to reach Stanley for further comment. He did not return my call but later told a South Boston newspaper reporter that he “misspoke” when he talked with Hagerman and that he did not know he was being recorded.
“I felt uncomfortable about the phone call,” Hagerman told me. He can be heard on the tape asking several times for Stanley to talk to him the next day.
The uranium issue has been fraught with allegations of influence peddling. Last year, Virginia Uranium drew criticism for paying for state legislators to visit some former uranium mining sites in France. The trip included an expenses-paid stopover in Paris.
The National Academy of Sciences reviewed the mining issue last year and noted that Virginia faces “steep hurdles” in terms of setting up regulations and monitoring it.
Stanley is a close political ally of McDonnell, whose political action committee provided $83,000 for his Senate race last year. He is a lawyer who lives in Franklin County. Before that, he practiced law in Northern Virginia and participated in Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit against former president Bill Clinton.
Hagerman is a retired sheriff’s deputy and investigator and a county magistrate. A resident of Gretna, he opposes lifting the uranium ban.