RICHMOND — A powerful former member of the Virginia House of Delegates was found guilty of bribery and extortion Wednesday for soliciting a job at Norfolk’s Old Dominion University after obtaining state funding for the school.
Former delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, 59, faces up to 30 years in prison in a rare public corruption case in Virginia. He remains free on bond.
A federal jury took four hours to convict Hamilton, who had been hired as the part-time director of the Center for Teacher Quality and Educational Leadership after arranging for taxpayer money to help launch the facility, which trained urban school teachers. He was paid about $80,000 between 2007 and 2009.
On the witness stand, Hamilton denied that he offered to get state funds for the center in exchange for a job. He said he was interested in a position at the center before funding was granted as a way to replace income he would be losing in 2007.
Hamilton had tried to hide the relationship by asking an ODU official to falsely say that he was the center’s director instead of Hamilton, unsuccessfully attempting to persuade school officials not to release incriminating e-mails in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and telling ODU officials not to mention his name in connection with the center to legislative staff.
A 21-year Republican veteran from Newport News, who was vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hamilton had been one of the most influential members of the House before he was defeated in 2009 after news of the federal investigation became public. He also resigned from the now-defunct center.
“Bribery and extortion are never just the cost of doing business in government,’’ said U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride for the Eastern District of Virginia. “Today’s guilty verdicts should serve as a reminder to every legislator of the trust the public has in our elected officials. Never betray that trust. Never sell your office. And never forget that if you do, we will hold you accountable.”
Hamilton, who was accompanied to the eight-day trial by his wife, Kim, and two children, will appeal the verdict.
“We’re shocked at the verdict,” Hamilton’s attorney, Andrew Sacks, told the Associated Press. “People are very distrustful of public officials these days, and Phil took that on the chin. The evidence itself was extremely weak.”
U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson will sentence Hamilton on Aug. 12. He faces up to 10 years in prison for bribery and up to 20 years in prison for extortion.
The trial, which began May 2 in U.S. District Court, riveted state officials and lobbyists in Richmond, where Hamilton’s former colleagues have been meeting on and off throughout the spring in a special legislative session. Witnesses included former and current legislators.
Hamilton’s case prompted a flurry of new state laws to strengthen state ethics rules.
“Neither ethical lapses nor public corruption are commonplace, let alone tolerated, in Virginia,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said. “We long have had a reputation for good government, and today’s jury verdict demonstrates that Virginians intend to keep it that way.”
Hamilton, then a part-time employee of the Newport News school system, met with ODU officials in 2006 when he was having money problems to discuss the possibility of obtaining state money to launch the center. He repeatedly reminded them that he wanted the director’s job and indicated how much he wanted to be paid.
Hamilton then sponsored a $1 million amendment to the state budget to fund the center. The university was ultimately awarded $500,000.
Although three other candidates applied for the job, none were interviewed. Hamilton was hired, although he did not apply.