Virginia House of Delegates Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R) paid at least $100,000 last year to settle a sexual harassment complaint by a woman who said he repeatedly made unwelcome advances on her in the warehouse complex where his legislative office was located, according to sources familiar with the settlement.
Wilkins, 65, reached the out-of-court settlement with Jennifer L. Thompson, 26, a former clerical worker at Wilkins Construction Co., just outside this small central Virginia town that has been the Republican's political base for 24 years in the General Assembly. Wilkins had sold the construction company years earlier, but had kept his legislative office in the same complex.
The construction company's top two officers said Thompson described a series of unwelcome sexual advances by Wilkins, which occurred over several weeks early last summer, that included him groping and pinning her against office furniture. Friends and supporters of Thompson said the size of the settlement reflected the seriousness of her complaint against Wilkins. Thompson did not formally file suit, and her allegations were never judged by a trial court.
Wilkins's attorney, Anthony F. Troy, issued a statement last night on the speaker's behalf, saying Wilkins "denies any allegations that [Thompson] made, and beyond that is not commenting."
As part of the settlement, Wilkins, Thompson and their attorneys, as well as several other individuals familiar with the matter, signed a confidentiality agreement that prohibited them from discussing it.
"I don't comment on personal things -- I just think that's not appropriate," Wilkins said last week.
"I have no comment," Thompson said during an interview at her Amherst County home near Lynchburg.
However, the two men who run Wilkins Construction said the harassment matter preoccupied the firm from August -- when they became aware of Thompson's allegations against Wilkins -- to the end of the year, when the settlement was finalized.
"This is something that shouldn't be swept under the table," said Donald L. Branscome, who in 1991 purchased the bridge- and road-building company that was founded by Wilkins's father. "He is the speaker of the House, writing laws and talking about moral character and family values. And then he goes and grabs this girl. He should have family values himself."
Wilkins Construction Co. President Donald R. Cantore said he confronted Wilkins about Thompson's allegations and that Wilkins flatly denied them. "But I wouldn't accept it," Cantore said. "I told him he was persona non grata in my eyes."
Thompson's father, Harvey Woodrow Thompson Jr., said his daughter had spoken to him in general terms about the alleged harassment, adding that she was still shaken by what happened.
"It had a real bad effect," said Thompson, a contractor who lives in Amherst County. "It was terrible. He put himself on her. It's hard when it follows her every day."
Jennifer Thompson's harassment allegations and the subsequent settlement have been the talk of this closely knit community for months, according to a number of business leaders and working people. Wilkins Construction employs more than 50 people, and the speaker has a wide circle of local acquaintances, several of whom said they had heard about Thompson's complaint. In addition, Thompson's family and friends, several of whom live in the blue-collar enclave of nearby Madison Heights, said they had heard about her complaint and the out-of-court settlement.
Wilkins is a formidable figure in these parts, not only because of his longevity in office, but also because of the enormous political power he wields statewide as speaker of the 100-member House, which has a Republican majority of 64 members. Wilkins spent two decades building that majority almost single-handedly, and his GOP colleagues rewarded him by electing him speaker in 2000, after Republicans captured the statehouse for the first time in Virginia history.
Wilkins, a staunch conservative, is in a position to reward political allies and punish opponents through his unchallenged control of the House committee system. In recent months, though, Wilkins's rule has been questioned by Republicans who were unsatisfied by his response to allegations that Edmund A. Matricardi III, then the state party's executive director, had eavesdropped on Democratic Party conference calls in March.
Dissent within the Republican ranks intensified this spring after the cellular telephone number of Claudia D. Tucker, Wilkins's legislative chief of staff, appeared on a list of those participating in one of the Democrats' conference calls. Wilkins suspended Tucker with pay, saying she was not involved in any eavesdropping.
When a reporter informed Wilkins last week that a story was being prepared about him and Thompson, Wilkins's initial response was: "What does she say? What is she saying?"
He declined to answer questions related to the harassment allegations and the out-of-court settlement, including whether he thought the matter impaired his leadership of the House.
Cantore, the Wilkins Construction Co. president, said he learned of Thompson's grievances in early August, when he returned from a vacation and was told by a colleague that Thompson was distraught and that he should talk to her.
"I sat her down, and she told me that he had sexually accosted her several times," touching Thompson inappropriately and pinning her against office furniture on different occasions that summer, Cantore said. Thompson, who had been on the job only a few months, told Cantore that Wilkins had said no one would believe her if she accused the House speaker of misconduct, Cantore added.
Cantore said Thompson also told him that Wilkins generally made advances on her on Fridays, when, because of a job-sharing arrangement with another secretary, she was in the office by herself.
Ronnie L. Morris, a driver and shop manager at the construction firm, said he witnessed Wilkins acting inappropriately toward Thompson, but declined to elaborate. Cantore said Morris was the employee who encouraged him to sit down with Thompson.
Soon after his conversation with Thompson -- and fearing that the construction company could be held liable for harassment that occurred on its premises -- Cantore drove three hours to Hillsville, Va., near the North Carolina line, to consult with Branscome, the company's owner, Cantore said.
Branscome said he believed Thompson's story, as related by Cantore, and that the two of them promptly consulted a lawyer, Harris D. Butler III of Richmond, an expert on employment and workplace law.
"We had to call an attorney -- what else could we do?" Branscome said.
According to Cantore, Branscome and other sources, Butler hired a private investigator to check the accuracy of Thompson's story and later drafted a civil complaint against Wilkins, alleging that there was evidence that the speaker had committed sexual battery against Thompson. Virginia law places no cap on the amount of damages that may be awarded to a victim of sexual battery.
Sources familiar with the settlement agreement -- it was signed by eight to 10 people -- said Thompson wanted to pursue criminal charges against Wilkins, but that Butler dissuaded her, saying such a trial would have been too time-consuming, with much greater burdens of proof than a potential civil case.
After checking out Thompson's allegations, Butler presented a draft civil complaint to Troy, a former state attorney general who represented Wilkins in the matter.
Cantore said Troy telephoned him at one point in an effort to determine whether Thompson was a credible witness against Wilkins. Cantore said he told Troy that he believed her allegations.
Loyd D. Johnson, Wilkins's brother-in-law who was a vice president at the company until his retirement last month, said he was aware that Thompson had "accused Vance of what she considered to be sexual harassment." Johnson said he never talked to Thompson or his brother-in-law about the matter, because it was Cantore's responsibility. Johnson said that both sides "were trying to reach an agreement" later in the summer and into the early fall.
The two sides reached a settlement shortly before the December holiday season, after the Nov. 6 elections for three statewide offices and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates. Wilkins added a dozen Republicans to his GOP majority.
Under the terms of the settlement, Wilkins relinquished his office in the construction company complex, Cantore said. Wilkins also asked Cantore and Branscome to agree to keep the matter confidential, but the two company officials declined, they said.
Cantore and Branscome said Butler, Thompson's attorney, informed them late in the year that a settlement had been reached, though they said they never learned the amount of the payment.
Two sources familiar with the settlement said it was at least $100,000, but not much more. The most recent statement of economic interests that Wilkins filed with the state in January shows that he owns stock and other holdings in five companies that combined are worth more than $250,000.
Under the terms of the settlement, Thompson could be liable to forfeit a portion of the money if she ever discusses the matter, according to sources familiar with the agreement.
Friends said Thompson, a licensed nurse's aide, had worked at a Lynchburg nursing home last year, and is now unemployed. She married in December, according to the couple's marriage license, which is on file in Lynchburg Circuit Court.
Staff researcher Mary Lou White contributed to this report.