Congressman Griffith worries that scrutiny of Puckett resignation politically motivated

A Republican congressman from southwest Virginia released a letter Tuesday questioning why federal authorities are exploring the controversial resignation of Phillip P. Puckett from the state Senate — saying others had left legislative posts under similar circumstances and faced no legal scrutiny.

In a three-page letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and FBI Director James B. Comey, Rep. H. Morgan Griffith wrote that he worried the interest in Puckett (D) was “politically motivated” and laid out several examples of lawmakers — at the federal and state levels — who resigned for other jobs and, in doing so, helped achieve other political aims.

Federal investigators are exploring the extent to which Puckett’s resignation from the state legislature — which gave Virginia Republicans a one-vote majority in the middle of a heated budget standoff — might have been influenced by a state tobacco commission job that a Republican colleague helped line up for him.

“I don’t think it’s wrong, but if it is wrong, it needs to be treated fairly,” Griffith said in an interview Tuesday. “How do you explain, out of all the instances that have happened and are happening, that this is the only one that’s being investigated?”

Griffith’s release of the letter was timely. On Friday, Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington) said he would resign to accept a job as deputy commissioner for aging services in the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. Though Brink’s departure did not generate the level of buzz that Puckett’s did — and Griffith acknowledged that it and other state legislators’ recent departures were not “directly on point” with Puckett’s — Griffith said, “Legally, they’re exactly the same.”

The exact motives and sequence of events that prompted Puckett to leave the legislature are not known. Records show, though, that he was lining up a job at the state tobacco commission before his resignation, and another lawmaker — Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), who chairs the tobacco commission — was intimately involved in the process.

Puckett ultimately stepped down June 9 with the stated purpose of clearing the way for his daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron, to be appointed a juvenile court judge. His service in the Senate was a well-known impediment to his daughter’s appointment because the Senate has a policy against seating the relatives of sitting legislators. His Democratic colleagues, though, quickly accused Republicans of bribing Puckett to leave the Senate, and he did not take the tobacco commission job.

Federal authorities soon began investigating the circumstances.

Griffith said that he believed what occurred was “not criminal” and that if it was, the Justice Department should investigate a myriad of similar cases. He wrote in his letter, for example, that officials might want to explore President Obama’s nomination last year of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) as the next U.S. ambassador to China. That, he wrote, served to remove a critic of the Affordable Care Act from the political scene.

Griffith also wrote that Virginia itself saw almost identical circumstances in the mid-1990s, when then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) turned a Democratic senator from Loudoun County, Charles L. Waddell, into his deputy transportation secretary, a move that gave the GOP a 20-to-19 edge in what had been an evenly divided Senate. Gilmore also appointed a Democrat to head the Department of Conservation and Recreation, creating an opening for a Republican to win a seat in the House.

An FBI spokesman referred questions to the Justice Department. A Justice spokesman and a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Virginia, which is handling the Puckett investigation, declined to comment.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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