The chief of staff for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) could be in legal jeopardy for suggesting a job for a state senator’s daughter if the senator remained in his seat to support a key Democratic initiative, several defense attorneys and former federal prosecutors said.
The legal experts said that the voice mail Paul Reagan left for then-Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D) in June laying out the potential deal could serve as the basis for public corruption charges, but prosecutors would need additional evidence and face hurdles to mounting such a case.
Reagan left the message for Puckett as the legislature was in a deadlock over McAuliffe’s push to expand health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. He suggested that Puckett’s daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron, might get a job as the head of a state agency if Puckett agreed to stay on in the Senate and back McAuliffe’s initiative.
Federal prosecutors are already examining the circumstances surrounding Puckett’s resignation, which flipped control of the chamber to Republicans and came amid accusations that Republicans had enticed him to leave with job offers for him and his daughter.
Reagan’s voice mail adds a wrinkle to the story. The Washington Post learned about the voice mail from three people who heard it. Two of the people said that prosecutors have also heard the recording.
“The essence of public corruption is a quid pro quo, exchanging an official act for a thing of value,” said Andrew T. Wise, a lawyer with Miller & Chevalier. “Certainly based on prior cases, an offer of a job would be a thing of value. But would it be a thing of value to Puckett if the job is being offered to his daughter? That’s not clear cut.”
Wise said a “creative and aggressive” prosecutor might make the argument that the job offer would directly benefit Puckett, but there would be significant room for the defense to argue otherwise.
Federal bribery law prohibits public officials from accepting anything of value in exchange for an“official act” or the promise of one.
Former federal prosecutor Solomon L. Wisenberg said that at the very least the revelation about Reagan probably would trigger a review by federal prosecutors in Virginia.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Virginia, which convened a grand jury investigation in Abingdon after Puckett resigned, has not responded to a request for comment.
“I think that’s a very unfortunate message to leave on someone’s voice mail,” Wisenberg said. “Thirty or forty years ago, this is not something that would have been thought of in terms of criminal liability, but it’s a different world now.”
Wisenberg and other lawyers said federal prosecutors have become much more aggressive in recent years in pursuing cases of perceived abuse of office. The lawyers pointed the recent trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the prosecution of former U.S. senator and presidential candidate John Edwards (D) in 2012 as examples.
Nevertheless, Wisenberg said the voice mail alone would not be enough to mount a case. Prosecutors would have to seek additional evidence and testimony.
“Both as a question of proof and prosecutorial discretion, they might not decide to do anything,” Wisenberg said. “My gut feeling is if this is all they have, it won’t go anywhere.”