RICHMOND — House Speaker William J. Howell announced Monday that he will block the confirmation of three former legislators’ nominations to state employment until the U.S. Justice Department assures him that the appointments are legal.
In a letter to top Justice Department officials, Howell (R) said he did not actually think the three latest appointments were improper — but was prompted to pose the question because the FBI is investigating another ex-legislator who resigned amid job talks.
Howell made clear how he feels about that case, involving former state senator Phillip P. Puckett (D). The speaker said Puckett did nothing unusual in June when he stepped down while discussing a job for himself on the Republican-controlled state tobacco commission and a judgeship for his daughter.
Puckett’s resignation threw control of the evenly split Senate into Republican hands and helped the GOP win a protracted standoff over the state budget and Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s top legislative priority, the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“Since it appears that the common practice of Virginia legislators resigning their positions to assume other state jobs is now under federal scrutiny, I write to request your opinion as to the legality of a matter facing the Virginia General Assembly,” Howell wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Timothy J. Heaphy, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia.
“As you may be aware, two of our House colleagues and a Senator resigned from the Legislature and were almost immediately appointed by Governor McAuliffe to paid state positions. The General Assembly must approve these appointments for them to take effect,” Howell wrote in a letter sent last week but released by his office Monday.
“Our dilemma is that if we approve these recent appointments at the Governor’s request, the U.S. Department of Justice may conclude that we aided or facilitated a violation of federal law. Moreover, given this uncertainty, we would be doing a disservice to our colleagues if we were to act and potentially ensnare them in a federal criminal investigation. I, therefore, will not bring these appointments to a vote before the House of Delegates until you assure us it is proper.”
Spokesmen for Holder and Heaphy declined to comment.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said Howell was making “political pawns” of the three appointees: former delegate Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington), former Del. Algie Howell Jr. (D-Norfolk) and former senator Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond).
“The Governor agrees with Speaker Howell’s statement that the appointment of these qualified public servants is ‘legal and appropriate,’ ” Coy said in a written statement. “The Speaker’s desire to deflect attention away from an ongoing scandal involving . . . his own caucus is understandable, but using qualified appointees as political pawns is the wrong approach.”
Howell’s refusal to confirm the appointees is simply symbolic unless the House votes to reject them. The three gubernatorial appointees are already on the job — Brink as deputy commissioner for aging services in the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services; Marsh as a member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board; and Algie Howell on the Parole Board.
Howell’s letter seems merely to make a comparison — between legislators’ landing paid, pension-fattening state employment on their way out of the General Assembly and what happened in Puckett’s case.
The timing and political punch of Puckett’s departure are what set it apart from the average legislative retirement, at least in the eyes of Democrats and the FBI, which continues to investigate. The resignation came in middle of a long standoff over the state budget and Medicaid. It also shifted control of an entire legislative chamber to the Republicans, who in a special election easily flipped the seat in a increasingly red, rural region where Puckett had managed to hold on by virtue of conservative positions and personal popularity.
Brink, Marshall and Algie Howell gave up seats in safe Democratic districts, so the political repercussions were nil. Puckett’s situation more closely resembles one from 1997, when then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) turned a Democratic senator from Loudoun County, Charles L. Waddell, into his deputy transportation secretary. The move gave the GOP a 20-to-19 edge in what had been an evenly divided Senate.
Gilmore also appointed a Democrat to head the Department of Conservation and Recreation, creating an opening for a Republican to win a seat in the House.
Those appointments set off howls from Democrats but no criminal probes.
At the time of his resignation, Puckett was in line for a job with the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, and his daughter was in line for a judgeship. His exit set off a furor among Democrats, who claimed Republicans had lured Puckett into retirement with the two job offers.
In June, Puckett issued a statement acknowledging that he was resigning, in part, to allow his daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron, to serve as a juvenile court judge. But he said that was not part of any back-room deal.
Puckett’s service in the Senate was a well-known impediment to his daughter’s judicial appointment because the Senate has a policy against seating the relatives of sitting legislators. The House, which does not share that policy, has twice approved her for the post, which Ketron already held on a temporary basis.
Amid the uproar, Puckett bowed out of the tobacco commission opportunity. Republicans have said they still expect to give his daughter a full appointment to the bench, although they did not do so in a special session last week.