RICHMOND — Sen. Phillip P. Puckett was about to get a good gig with the state tobacco commission, one created just for him, with a job description he was invited to write himself. Maybe even a state car.
The only problem was timing. If the commission hired Puckett on the same day that the Democrat from rural Russell County stepped down from the Senate, it might look fishy. His resignation would give the Republicans control of the chamber, giving them the advantage in a budget standoff over Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s top priority: Medicaid expansion.
The head of the commission warned that they should “ ‘decouple’ those announcements for the sake of the appearance of the Commission manipulating the Senate balance of power and starting WW3 w/ the Governor’s administration.”
That message is part of a 74-page e-mail trail made public this week that provides new details of a bitter episode in Virginia political history and discloses for the first time that a Republican lawmaker took steps to create a job specifically for Puckett before the Democrat resigned from the Senate. The Washington Post obtained the e-mails under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The e-mails begin May 29 with a breezy note between two colleagues about a potential job for Puckett. They end 11 days later with an abrupt order to call off the appointment — and an all-staff alert about how to handle a growing news-media frenzy.
The documents shed light on what went on behind the scenes — from rolling out the red carpet for Puckett to escalating political concerns — in the days immediately before and after Puckett’s resignation.
On that first day came an e-mail from Timothy S. Pfohl, interim executive director of the tobacco commission. Established 15 years ago to dole out $1 billion from a legal settlement with the nation’s largest tobacco companies, the body, known formally as the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission (and informally as TICR), funds projects intended to boost jobs in the state’s most economically depressed regions. That gives the people who serve on the commission board — including a number of state lawmakers — the chance to distribute funds to their regions.
In this instance, Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), the commission’s chairman, proposed a staff job with the commission especially tailored for Puckett.
“If you’re in tomorrow Terry would like us to call Puckett to discuss what kind of role he might like w/ Commission,” Pfohl wrote to Ned Stephenson, the tobacco commission’s deputy director.
Puckett, a moderate Democrat who split with his caucus on abortion but supported Medicaid expansion, would not be the only one to benefit if he left the Senate for a job with the commission. The move would give Republicans control of the chamber, allowing them to break a stalemate over Medicaid and the state budget and probably thwart McAuliffe’s legislative agenda for the rest of his term.
Kilgore has said there was no quid pro quo, that Puckett’s plan to resign merely made him available to work for the commission. Puckett has said his departure was prompted by an unspecified family crisis and Puckett’s desire to clear the way for his daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron, to be appointed a juvenile court judge.
Puckett’s service in the Senate was a well-known obstacle to Ketron’s appointment because the Senate has a policy against seating the relatives of sitting legislators. The House, which does not share that policy, had twice approved the appointment, which local Circuit Court judges have given her on a temporary basis.
On May 30, the day after the first e-mail, Pfohl wrote a message to Puckett and copied Stephenson on an e-mail with the subject line, “TICR role.”
“Phillip: Chairman Kilgore has asked Ned and I to reach out to you to discuss potential role(s) for you as an employee of the Commission,” he wrote. “I’m not aware of the genesis of this idea, but Terry has asked us to speak to you when you’re available.”
On June 5, Stephenson e-mailed Kilgore and Pfohl a “draft job description that Chairman Kilgore asked me to prepare for discussion purposes” and encouraged the senator to suggest changes. The attached Word document could be “easily edited,” Stephenson wrote, and he welcomed comments about how “we can shape this for mutual success.”
The job title was “Senior advisor to the Commission.” The start date was June 25.
“The incumbent will serve in an advisory role to the Commission to advance its economic development objectives, expand its community outreach efforts, and develop marketing strategies for Commission programs throughout the entire tobacco region of Virginia,” the e-mail said.
But in another June 5 e-mail, under the subject line “Today’s directive from Terry K,” Pfohl expressed his concern about pairing the resignation and job announcements.
“Phillip: Terry spoke to us today about announcing your role w/ the Commission in conjunction with what he said is your intention to announce your Senate plans tomorrow,” Pfohl wrote. “I implored him to ‘decouple’ those announcements for the sake of the appearance of the Commission manipulating the Senate balance of power and starting WW3 w/ the Governor’s administration.”
Pfohl went on to say that the commission’s executive committee still planned to meet a few days after Puckett’s resignation to give him the job.
“I mention all this so you know what’s being planned on our end to give this the most defensible appearance of due process,” Pfohl added.
Also in that message, Pfohl let Puckett know that he had tipped off the McAuliffe administration about the plans.
“I felt I had to pull the trigger on giving [Commerce and Trade Secretary] Maurice Jones a heads up that this was fast-developing just this afternoon,” Pfohl wrote. “Maurice agrees with the ‘decoupling’ strategy but wanted me to touch base with you to see if the Gov’s folks are aware of your plans. . . . Let’s hope this all goes as smoothly as possible!”
It did not.
The heads-up that Pfohl gave the administration set off a frenzied round of phone calls: Jones to McAuliffe’s chief of staff, Paul J. Reagan, and then Reagan to McAuliffe. The governor, on his way to the Caribbean for the weekend to officiate at a friend’s wedding, called Puckett directly and urged him to wait to resign at least until the budget fight was over. So did U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), according to two people familiar with Warner’s efforts.
Puckett was unmoved.
On June 8, he and his wife quietly cleaned out his Senate office on Capitol Square. He asked Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar to meet him there, and he presented her with his resignation letter, effective the next day.
The news started leaking out that night, a Sunday. Democrats, furious that Puckett had handed the GOP control of the chamber in the middle of the standoff over the budget and Medicaid, accused Republicans of bribing him with job offers for himself and his daughter. Not long after, the FBI launched an investigation.
Even amid the uproar that Monday, the tobacco commission was moving ahead to hire Puckett. Its executive committee was scheduled meet that Wednesday for the sole purpose of appointing him. Pfohl was e-mailing Kilgore about finalizing Puckett’s job description about midday when Kilgore suddenly shifted gears.
“Hold up,” Kilgore wrote.
A minute later, Kilgore added: “May not wNt to do it.”