By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
RICHMOND -- Of the four lawyers running for governor this year, two are being paid by Virginia law firms as they campaign full time and conduct little, if any, legal work.
Who are Republican Robert F. McDonnell and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds representing, and just how much are they being paid? They won't say.
"I have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to run for governor,'' Deeds said. "I'm doing what I have to do. I'm doing enough work to pay my bills. There's no magic to it. There's no big secret."
This type of employment arrangement violates no laws and has for many years been a commonly accepted practice in Virginia political circles. But some ethics experts say the private work might create a conflict of interest for either man if he is elected governor in November.
Similar concerns confronted Deeds two years ago when he accepted a job at a Richmond-based firm that had a lobbying presence, even as he served in the state Senate. His critics said he was violating a state ethics rule that advises any lawmaker to "be careful to avoid using his public position for improper special advantage for clients." He left the firm.
McDonnell and Deeds are now employed at medium-size firms that do no lobbying, and both said they are trying to balance the need to support their families with running for governor full time. If candidates can't bring home a paycheck while campaigning, they said, the only people who would run for office would be those who do not understand the financial struggles of their constituents.
"You'd only get independently wealthy people running for governor," McDonnell said. "That would probably not be a good system."
McDonnell, Deeds and their law firms would not disclose their salaries or the names of their clients. Virginia law requires only that candidates identify companies that pay them more than $10,000 a year. That secrecy does not sit well with some.
"Voters have the right to know how candidates that seek to be governor are making a living," said Massie Ritsch at the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington nonpartisan group that studies the influence of money on elections. "The more information, the better for people trying to earn the public's trust and lead them as governor."
The other candidates for governor are not collecting paychecks.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a businessman who graduated from law school and pursued a career in business and real estate, has a net worth of at least $5.6 million, according to state public records. But he is probably worth considerably more because state law does not require candidates to report the exact value of investments that exceed $250,000.
McAuliffe, 52, lists 21 investments of at least $250,000, six investments whose values range from $50,001 to $250,000 and six whose values range from $10,001 to $50,000.
Democrat Brian Moran, a former state legislator, said he closed his small law firm in Alexandria last year and is living off savings and cutting back on expenses to support his wife and their two children, ages 8 and 6.
Moran, 49, has a pair of investments whose values range from $50,001 to $250,000 and one asset of between $10,000 and $50,000, according to public records.
"When you run for governor, you're on your own,'' Moran said.
Mary Boyle of Common Cause, a nonprofit group in Washington that monitors government ethics issues, said candidates need to be able to make money to support their families while campaigning. But, she said, the notion of candidates getting paid for little or no work sounds a lot like campaign contributions. "Is there going to be payback later for people giving the money?" she asked.
McDonnell, 54, the Republican nominee for governor, resigned as state attorney general last month and returned to the Virginia Beach law firm where he had worked for 14 years while serving in the General Assembly. Huff, Poole & Mahoney advertises a variety of legal services, including personal injury, commercial and administrative law for individuals, small businesses, banks, large corporations and government agencies. Clients include Cessna Aircraft, Hudson Insurance Group and Sentara Healthcare.
McDonnell said that he resigned as attorney general because he did not want to spend taxpayers' money while campaigning full time but that accepting money from a private firm is different. He said he needs to earn a salary to support his wife and five children, including three who live at home and one who attends college.
The firm lists McDonnell as one of its 23 lawyers, but the voice mail at his law firm office redirects callers to his campaign headquarters.
McDonnell, whose home and campaign office are in Richmond, said he has been to the firm once since he rejoined and he expects to attend meetings once or twice a month. "They understand I'm going to be campaigning full time," he said.
The law firm's Web site announces the return of "gubernatorial candidate" McDonnell. Partners there said they are planning a welcome reception for him. "It was natural for him to come home," said Glen A. Huff, the firm's founder and president. "We are thrilled."
Deeds, 51, who often refers to himself a "country lawyer," began working at the Richmond-based Hirschler Fleischer law firm in late 2006 as he geared up to run for the state's top job. He switched to the Framme law firm after legislators and others questioned his affiliation at a firm that employees lobbyists.
His new firm was founded by Lawrence H. Framme III, a Cabinet secretary for former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) and former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party. Deeds is one of the firm's 24 lawyers. They help clients in matters including personal injury claims, estate planning and motor vehicle infractions. Deeds said his longstanding relationships and connections help him bring in clients, but much of the business comes from contracts in which clients prepay for legal services.
Deeds reports two investments whose values range from $10,001 to $50,000, according to public records. His wife, Pam, works for the Virginia Employment Commission in Covington, and they support four children, two in college.
Framme said Deeds is a salaried employee and is paid for the value he brings to the firm. He said that Deeds handles as many cases as time permits but that he understands his main focus is campaigning.
"You have a lawyer running for governor," Framme said. "You support him because it's the right thing to do."