Gilmore Dealt Setback on Finn Attorney Fees
By Donald P. Baker
RICHMOND, Feb. 3—Efforts by Gov. James S. Gilmore III to prevent Hugh Finn's widow from collecting attorney fees stemming from the governor's intervention in a right-to-die case boomeranged today when the Senate Finance Committee overwhelmingly approved awarding Michele Finn $48,000.
Gilmore had pressured fellow Republicans on the committee to vote against the claim. In an interview after today's 15 to 1 vote, the governor said he was and is acting out of conviction that other family members disagreed with Michele Finn's conclusion -- supported by half a dozen doctors -- that her husband was in a persistent vegetative state and that under Virginia law, she could order doctors to stop feeding him.
Hugh Finn, a Louisville newscaster, suffered brain damage in a 1995 automobile accident.
After Gilmore failed in court to block Michele Finn's wishes -- an action that attracted national attention -- Hugh Finn's feeding tube was removed, and he died Oct. 9 in a Manassas nursing home, to which he was moved to be near his parents.
"I'm not about to back off now, because of politics or because of some political attack," Gilmore said. And although the governor added that, "I'm not going to conclude anything until I see what bill passes through the assembly, if any," his advisers left little doubt that he would veto the measure if it passes both chambers.
Sources close to the governor said that although there had been division among his advisers originally about whether he should have intervened, they now believe that for Gilmore to back down would make his actions look political, rather than ethical.
Gilmore's counsel, David Anderson, said the governor will keep the pressure on Republicans, who control the Senate 21 to 19, to derail the measure on the floor.
Two of the Republican senators who voted in the majority today, Warren E. Barry (Fairfax) and Malfourd W. "Bo" Trumbo (Botetourt) said last week that Gilmore bitterly complained to them about their support of the legislation.
Barry, whose wife has been in a coma for several years, told the committee today that although he believes "the governor sincerely felt it was incumbent upon him to protect the rights of a citizen of the commonwealth [Hugh Finn], the governor was wrong" in this instance.
Only the Senate majority leader, Republican Walter A. Stosch (Henrico), voted no.
The committee acted after a tearful Michele Finn told the senators that "the governor has used his authority to chastise and threaten members of this committee, and others, for their support of this bill. If he is willing to punish you, who are only trying to represent the will of your constituents, can you begin to understand the wrongfulness of his intrusion into a private individual?"
Gilmore said today that his intervention in the Finn case was in response "to both family and staff" at the Annaburg Nursing Home, who said that Finn, who was not in a coma, periodically communicated with them.
When a Prince William County judge, after hearing evidence, ruled that the feeding tube could be removed, Gilmore appealed that decision to the Virginia Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the lower-court decision.
After that, Michele Finn sued Gilmore to recover her attorney's fees, and on Nov. 25, the court ruled that the state must reimburse her $13,000 in legal fees and costs, plus $2,731 to Hugh Finn's court-appointed guardian.
Gilmore is appealing that decision, and it is the court costs involved in fighting that appeal that Michele Finn seeks to recover.
"Michele Finn filed to get fees," Gilmore said today. "We didn't address that issue at all. She, in fact, said, 'It's time to give it a rest,' and the next thing we knew, she was in court."
"And," he added, "we didn't take it to the General Assembly."
To make the legislation more palatable to Republicans, its sponsor Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) removed language that called Gilmore's intervention a "horrific abuse of the government's power." He also 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.
The stark divisions of the family were in evidence today, as Hugh Finn's father, Thomas G. Finn Sr., and one of his six brothers, Ed Finn, testified against the bill, while one of his sisters, Karen, testified in favor.
Even as Gilmore remains unyielding, the fractured Finn family indicated that reconciliation is possible.
"It's a very long process, but I love all my family," Karen Finn said. Michele Finn added, "I love [Hugh's] family. I understand the pain of a parent and hope some day there will be reconciliation."
"Sure, somewhere down the line," the father said. "I have eight kids -- seven now -- put them all through college, and they're all good talkers, all with minds of their own."
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