-- Republicans in the House of Delegates plan to spend about $6,000 in public funds on a portrait of S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R), whom they forced from the House speakership in June over allegations that he made improper sexual advances against a woman in his Amherst County district.

GOP lawmakers defended the planned appropriation today, saying that there is a time-honored tradition of honoring former speakers with a portrait that hangs behind the speaker's rostrum in the House chamber of the state Capitol.

"Although the circumstances of his leaving were unfortunate, I believe he accomplished a lot as speaker," said Del. Jeannemarie A. Devolites of Fairfax County, a House GOP leader. "He was very loyal to the job."

Republicans hold 64 seats in the 100-member House.

Democratic leaders said they respected the tradition of commissioning a portrait, but said private funds should pay for Wilkins's picture.

"If Republicans are adamant to honor him with a portrait, they should chip in and pay for it themselves," said state Del. Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "It's an inappropriate use of taxpayer money, considering the cloud over his departure."

The Washington Post published a report June 7 about a $100,000 out-of-court-payment that Wilkins, 66, made to a 26-year-old Amherst County woman last year to settle a complaint that he had sexually assaulted her that summer.

Wilkins, a longtime delegate who rose to the speakership in January 2000, denied the allegations of sexual misconduct but acknowledged the settlement and resigned under pressure from GOP colleagues and Republican leaders across the state.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) is the chief sponsor of legislation that would allocate from the House's operating fund "a sum sufficient to cover the cost" of the Wilkins portrait. A painting of Wilkins's Democratic predecessor, Thomas W. Moss Jr. of Norfolk, cost $6,300, including the frame.

Because Griffith's measure is a House resolution, state Senate approval is not required. Nearly 50 GOP delegates have signed on as co-sponsors, as have two rural Democrats, according to House Clerk Bruce F. Jamerson.

"It really is a small item, a reasonable price," Griffith said. Wilkins "did a nice job as speaker. It wasn't like he was convicted of a criminal violation. While there were certainly some questions, we don't have all the facts."

However, state Democratic Party Chairman Lawrence H. Framme III echoed Moran, saying GOP lawmakers in the state House and Senate should cover the portrait's cost.

"If each Republican member of the legislature contributed $68.18, the $6,000 portrait would be paid for.

This is better than the taxpayers paying to paint a portrait of a man who resigned in disgrace."