The Virginia attorney general's office has declined to render an opinion on whether a series of letters from a health care lobbyist to a handful of lawmakers constitutes bribery.
Instead, the office suggested that the legislators who received the letters could present the matter to state prosecutors in Richmond or in their home districts.
"We can issue opinions, but we don't rule on the facts of a case," said Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R).
The top lobbyist for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, Katharine M. Webb, sent the letters to seven Republican lawmakers who voted against the interests of her membership, she said.
The letters rejected the legislators' requests for contributions, saying that support from the group's political action committee "must be contingent on a recognition" that it is reasonable for health care providers to be reimbursed for the costs of serving Medicaid patients.
"Our board said we want them to know we can't be expected to fund their campaigns when our priorities are so divergent," Webb said yesterday. "It's okay to have different priorities. But contributions need to be in alignment with those who share our priorities."
Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), chairman of the Republican Caucus, wrote to Kilgore this month saying he thought the letters violated state bribery laws.
Kilgore's office responded by defining bribery as "the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of anything of value with intent to influence the recipient's action as a public official."
Christopher R. Nolen, chief counsel to the attorney general, wrote that whether the lobbyist's letters amounted to bribery depends on the facts of the case. He said the attorney general's office leaves such determinations up to judges and juries.
Some said the letter reflects prevailing practices in Richmond and is unusual only in its directness.
"There's nothing shocking in this," said Mark Rozell, chairman of the Politics Department at Catholic University. "It was just that the PAC's response was so candid in admitting that they do what everyone else does."
In fact, last week, Kilgore's campaign solicited a donation from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association as part of a broad mailing, a campaign spokesman said.
Landes said yesterday that he would leave the decision whether to pursue the matter to the lawmakers who received the letter.
Two of the recipients of the letters said they would not pursue it further.
"The truth is, we all have bigger fish to fry," said Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William). "I thought the letter was inappropriate. But having said that, I don't think Ms. Webb got up in the morning intending to break the law. She overstated her point."
Similarly, Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax) said he was ready to let things rest. "I thought it was in awfully poor taste," he said. "She crossed the line, I thought. But it just shows you the nature of things in Richmond these days."
At lease one of those who received the letter said he saw nothing unusual in it.
"I didn't take any offense at the letter to begin with," said Sen. Bill Bolling (R-Hanover). "Different people could read the letter in different ways. They were saying that they were not going to be supportive and here's why. I thought they were being very honest in their position, and you can't ask for more than that. I frankly never understood the angst."