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  •   Va. House Panel Rejects Payment for Finn

    Michelle Finn
    Michelle Finn (Susan Biddle — The Washington Post)
    By Donald P. Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, February 18, 1999; Page B1

    RICHMOND, Feb. 17 – A House committee sided with Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) today in deciding not to reimburse Michele Finn for legal expenses she incurred as a result of the governor's intervention in her husband's highly publicized right-to-die case.

    Although today's 8 to 7 party-line vote in the House Claims Committee was a critical setback for Finn's supporters in the assembly, Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), the bill's sponsor, vowed to revive the claim in the final 10 days of the legislative session.

    Gilmore, who says he tried to stop Hugh Finn's wife from withdrawing food and water from her brain-damaged husband at the request of other members of Hugh Finn's family, saluted "those eight [Republican] members for doing their duty."

    After testifying before the committee today – her third appearance before a legislative panel in recent weeks – Michele Finn said of the vote: "I don't understand. How can a majority be so cold?

    "It's evident that [Gilmore] has pressured the Republican members to stay with him in his camp," Finn said. She suggested that the governor "could have gotten gracefully through this" by not opposing the legislation and allowing lawmakers to decide the claim on its merits.

    The governor said Saslaw's proposal "always was and still is political." He added that it would be "highly unusual" if Saslaw resurrects it before the Feb. 27 adjournment.

    The bill seeks to reimburse Michele Finn $48,000 for legal fees incurred last fall while fighting Gilmore's unsuccessful attempt to prevent her from removing the feeding tube from her husband, a Louisville newscaster who suffered catastrophic injuries in a 1995 automobile accident.

    Gilmore's intervention in the case attracted national attention, much of which portrayed Gilmore as siding against a grieving wife's attempt to carry out her husband's wishes. Although some aides to the governor say privately that he dug himself into a hole by his stance, others applauded his firm opposition, saying it is based on high-minded principles.

    Hugh Finn's death in a Manassas nursing home Oct. 9, and the subsequent legal wrangling, have fractured his family. More than once, Hugh Finn's parents have suggested that their son was murdered when his wife authorized the withholding of nourishment.

    Michele Finn, who lives in Louisville with the couple's two young daughters, in turn accused state officials of being religious fanatics who refused to accept doctors' findings that her husband, though not comatose, was in a persistent vegetative state as a result of the accident.

    As Hugh Finn's legal guardian, Michele Finn told his family last summer that she had decided to withhold nourishment from her husband and allow him to die. Initially, the family agreed, but in September, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), asked state health officials to investigate whether Hugh Finn was, as three physicians had found, in a vegetative state. Three more doctors named by the state confirmed the diagnosis, and a date was set for withdrawal of sustenance to Hugh Finn.

    Then Gilmore jumped into the case, asking a Circuit Court judge to reconsider his ruling that the planned action satisfied provisions of Virginia's Health Care Decisions Act. When he lost there, Gilmore appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, which unanimously rejected the governor's arguments.

    Saslaw said today's outcome was not unexpected because "the governor bent many arms" to keep members of his own party from defecting on the sensitive issues, as they did when the Senate passed the proposal by a vote of 34 to 6 last week. Several GOP delegates acknowledged meeting with gubernatorial aides on the eve of the vote, but said they were merely seeking guidance for a legal justification to oppose the payment.

    Then today, the Republicans rolled out a new defense: that a judge who awarded $15,731 to Michele Finn in November effectively had rejected the other $48,000 in legal fees that she now seeks from the legislature. Gilmore also is appealing the smaller award to the Virginia Supreme Court.

    Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-Fairfax) complained after today's vote that the Democrats were "going crazy," vowing to raise money and campaign for her opponent in the November election.

    Marshall, who also is on the claims panel, said he, too, was threatened with political retribution.

    During debate in the Senate, Saslaw added a $10,000 award for one of Hugh Finn's brothers, John Finn, of Woodbridge, who brought the original legal action that unsuccessfully attempted to block Michele Finn from ending her husband's life.

    Unlike previous hearings on the bill, no member of the Finn family appeared today to oppose the bill. The only witness who spoke in opposition was Michele Finn's estranged sister, Elaine Glazier of Merion Station, Pa. Supporting Michele Finn was one of Hugh Finn's sisters, Karen, who said after the vote: "I'm not sure I can go through much more of this. We need to get through the grieving process."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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