E-mails show that Puckett job was in the works before he resigned from Va. Senate


State Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Russell, gestures as he poses a question during a hearing in Richmond in this 2010 photo. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — The head of the state tobacco commission warned that the panel would create the appearance of “manipulating” power in the Virginia Senate if it announced that it was hiring Sen. Phillip P. Puckett on the same day he gave up his seat, according to e-mails released Thursday.

Tim Pfohl, interim executive director of the commission, said in a June 5 e-mail to Puckett, a Democrat from rural Russell County, that he had begged Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott) to delay making it known that Puckett was getting a top staff job with the commission. Kilgore is chairman of the commission.

“Phillip: Terry spoke to us today about announcing your role w/ the Commission in conjunction with what he said is your intention to announce your Senate plans tomorrow,” Pfohl wrote. “I implored him to ‘decouple’ those announcements for the sake of the appearance of the Commission manipulating the Senate balance of power and starting WW3 w/ the Governor’s administration.”

Pfohl went on to say that the commission’s executive committee still planned to meet a few days later to give Puckett the job.

“I mention all this so you know what’s being planned on our end to give this the most defensible appearance of due process,” Pfohl added.

The message is among 74 pages of e-mails that The Washington Post obtained Thursday under a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents shed light on what went on behind the scenes in the days leading up to Puckett’s surprise resignation.

His exit, which handed Republicans control of the evenly divided Senate in the middle of a standoff over the state budget and Medicaid expansion, was connected to job prospects for Puckett and his daughter. Puckett and Kilgore have said there was never any quid pro quo, but the move infuriated Democrats and sparked an FBI investigation.

The e-mail messages indicated that the commission was creating the post especially for Puckett, who was asked to help come up with his own job description. The position was to come with state employee benefits, a cell phone and possibly a car, according to the e-mails. The salary was not specified.

Puckett and Kilgore did not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday night. Nor did Puckett’s attorney, Thomas Bondurant. Kilgore’s attorney, Thomas Cullen, declined to comment.

Puckett 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 obstacle to his daughter’s appointment because the Senate has a policy against seating the relatives of sitting legislators. The House, which does not share that policy, had twice approved the appointment, which local Circuit Court judges have given her on a temporary basis.

When news of Puckett’s resignation broke, Kilgore confirmed that the commission’s executive committee was expected to meet and consider appointing him two days later. But Kilgore said the resignation merely made Puckett available to take the position, which involves awarding economic development grants funded by the national tobacco litigation settlement. The panel is formally known as the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission.

The e-mail trail regarding the job offer begins on May 29, when Pfohl sent a message to Ned Stephenson, the commission’s deputy director. It indicates that Kilgore wanted to tailor a job at the commission to Puckett.

“If you’re in tomorrow Terry would like us to call Puckett to discuss what kind of role he might like w/ Commission,” Pfohl wrote.

The next day, May 30, Pfohl e-mailed Puckett and copied Stephenson on an e-mail with the subject line, “TICR role.”

“Phillip: Chairman Kilgore has asked Ned and I to reach out to you to discuss potential role(s) for you as an employee of the Commission,” he wrote. “I’m not aware of the genesis of this idea, but Terry has asked us t speak to you when you’re available.”

On June 5, Stephenson e-mailed Kilgore and Pfohl a “draft job description that Chairman Kilgore asked me to prepare for discussion purposes.” The attached Word document could be “easily edited,” Stephenson wrote, and he said that he welcomed comments about how “we can shape this for mutual success.”

The job title was “Senior advisor to the Commission.” The start date was June 25.

“The incumbent will serve in an advisory role to the Commission to advance its economic development objectives, expand its community outreach efforts, and develop marketing strategies for Commission programs throughout the entire tobacco region of Virginia,” the e-mail said.

But in another June 5 e-mail, under the subject line “Today’s directive from Terry K”, Pfohl expressed his concern about pairing the resignation and job announcements. Pfohl reported that he had convinced Kilgore to hold off on the job news, but he wanted to move ahead to schedule a meeting of the commission’s executive board to appoint him to the post.

“Let’s hope this all goes as smoothly as possible!” Pfohl wrote.

It did not. Days later, news began to leak that Puckett was resigning. Democrats accused Republicans of bribing him to abandon his Senate seat. A day later, Puckett withdrew his name from consideration for the post. News of a federal investigation came the following week.

“Hold up,” Kilgore wrote to Pfohl amidst an exchange about the job description. A minute later, Kilgore added: “May not wNt to do it.”

Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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