RICHMOND — Thomas K. Norment Jr., the majority leader of the Virginia Senate, has acknowledged a relationship with a lobbyist whose firm regularly pushed for legislation that Norment voted for and, in two cases, sponsored directly.
Norment, a Williamsburg-area lawmaker who is among Virginia’s most powerful politicians, admitted the relationship while defending himself against allegations of wrongdoing made by a former legal client who tried to blackmail him.
The allegations prompted federal investigators to review the relationship, but they closed the matter without bringing criminal charges.
The client, Christopher J. Burruss, was sentenced April 1 to two years in prison on federal extortion charges. In addition to the blackmail attempt, Burruss had filed a complaint to the Virginia State Bar in 2013. In it, according to Norment spokesman Jeff Ryer, Burruss accused the lawmaker of myriad offenses, including doing political favors for the lobbyist because of their relationship.
Norment (R-James City) denied wrongdoing in a response to the complaint, Ryer said. Norment also named the lobbyist, Angela Bezik, and disclosed the personal relationship, according to two people who have seen the confidential document.
Norment said in his response to the bar complaint that he had exercised “exceedingly poor judgment,” Ryer confirmed.
The details of Norment’s response were first reported by the Virginian-Pilot.
“The U.S. Attorney exhaustively examined this matter and cleared me and everyone else Mr. Burruss attempted to smear in his failed blackmail attempt,” Norment said in a statement issued to The Washington Post on Thursday.
It’s not clear when Norment’s relationship with Bezik began or ended, but he said in the bar response that he reconciled with his wife in 2011.
According to public records, Bezik’s firm lobbied the legislature on 126 different bills between 2011 and 2014, when the most recent data is available. Of the 63 measures that made it to the Senate floor for a vote, Norment did not abstain on any.
There is no evidence that Norment gave Bezik’s issues special treatment. In other cases, lawmakers have tried to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest by not voting on measures when a family member or intimate friend also holds a stake in a matter.
The revelations come at a time when ethics in politics and appearances of conflicts are heavy on the minds of Virginia’s political class. Former governor Robert F. McDonnell’s conviction last year, along with his wife, Maureen, on corruption charges stemming from a $177,000 gifts scandal prompted lawmakers to tighten ethics rules in each of the past two years.
Norment was an author of legislation that emerged from the General Assembly this year imposing a $100 annual cap on gift-giving to lawmakers. He was also appointed in February to the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.
Even as he acknowledged a need for reform, however, Norment has complained publicly that the push for ethics reform has been overblown. Norment has been among the legislature’s biggest gift recipients (he was No. 1 in 2012), accepting hunting trips, for instance, from Dominion Virginia Power and the Virginia Public Safety Alliance. Norment has said that, since 2013, he has paid for such trips himself.
According to a news release from federal prosecutors, Burruss’s allegations arose from a complaint to the state bar in which he accused Norment of mishandling a criminal case involving charges of eluding police and driving under the influence. In addition to the complaint, Burruss also e-mailed Norment and threatened to release damaging personal information if he didn’t pay $20,000, the news release says. It’s unclear how Burruss knew of the personal relationship between Norment and Bezik.
Burruss’s allegations prompted a review by federal investigators, but prosecutors closed the case without pursuing criminal charges, according to a letter from federal prosecutors provided by Norment’s attorney, Richard Cullen.
Ryer confirmed that the FBI interviewed Norment multiple times about the case. Investigators also reviewed e-mail and cellphone data, Ryer said.
Cullen said he does not think prosecutors would have proceeded with the extortion case had they thought that something improper had happened between Norment and Bezik. “During Norment’s preparation by the U.S. attorney’s office in the case against Burruss, the prosecutors told him that [they] had looked into Burruss’s allegation that Norment and the lobbyist had done something wrong and reported to Norment that those allegations were false,” Cullen said.
Norment, 69, is a 23-year veteran of the state Senate. A lawyer with the Hampton Roads firm Kaufman & Canoles, he also teaches at the law school of the College of William and Mary.
Bezik, the FBI and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to comment through spokesmen. In a statement, Norment said he reported Burruss’s plot to authorities knowing they would look into all of his claims.
“I was very pleased when the federal prosecutors assured me they had thoroughly examined all of Mr. Burruss’s allegations in their entirety — against me and others whom he had unfairly smeared — and found all of the allegations completely baseless,” he said.
Regarding the relationship with Bezik, Norment said that it had occurred while he was contemplating divorce.
At the time of their relationship, Bezik worked for a small lobbying firm she had co-founded, Principle Advantage, and she represented a variety of clients with business before the legislature, including Autism Speaks, the city of Virginia Beach and the Council for Certified Virginia Interior Designers.
For the past year, Bezik has worked for the Richmond-based law firm Williams Mullen. But her name was removed from the firm’s Web site last week, and a spokeswoman said she had left “to pursue other opportunities.”
Virginia law states that a conflict of interest arises when a lawmaker or a member of the lawmaker’s immediate family is likely to reap a “personal financial benefit” from a matter before the legislature.
No states prohibit relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists, according to Peggy Kerns of the National Conference of State Legislatures. In some cases, lawmakers have taken steps to minimize the appearance of a conflict by abstaining on votes or prohibiting the lobbyist from directly lobbying the lawmaker or that person’s staff.
Virginia’s secretary of the commonwealth as well as the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project compile and publish records of registered lobbyists — including Bezik and her firm.
In two cases, Norment was the chief sponsor of bills lobbied by Bezik’s firm. The first bill dealt with a turf war over whether state or local agencies should have the power to help nonprofit organizations borrow money and collect the associated fees.
Norment sponsored the bill during the 2011 legislative session on behalf of the city of Williamsburg, which at the time worried about losing revenue over such deals. Several local governments, including Bezik’s client, Virginia Beach, were also part of the effort. Norment eventually struck the bill after he helped broker a compromise to resolve the issue without legislation, according to multiple people involved with the issue.
In his statement to The Post, Norment said of that bill: It “was brought to me by the City of Williamsburg, which I represented at the time and for 20 years. I carried it at their request and would do so again — happily.”
The second bill would have established a fund to encourage private investment in renewable energy grant projects. Norment introduced the bill in the 2014 session, voted for it in the finance committee and again on the Senate floor. The bill passed but would not have gone into effect unless an identical bill passed in this year’s session. It did not.
A client of Bezik’s firm, a regional chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association, favored the bill and later in 2014 donated $2,500 to Norment’s campaign fund, according to VPAP.
Of that bill, Norment said in his statement that it was not brought to him by Bezik, and he noted that a parallel measure was introduced in the House.
Bezik’s firm also disclosed a gift to Norment. In January 2012, the firm took a party — including Norment and Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), two Virginia Beach officials and another lobbyist — to dinner at Julep’s restaurant in Richmond. Bezik later billed her client, Virginia Beach, for the $660 dinner, according to an invoice.
Saslaw declined to comment on the relationship. “Legislators’ personal lives are nobody’s business but theirs,” he said.
Not everyone approaches such relationships that way.
Politico reported last week that when Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) started dating a lobbyist last summer he “drafted a formal document stating she would not lobby him or his staff,” including staff of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, of which he is chairman. In that case, the lobbyist works for a U.S. airline trade association with an interest in matters that would come before the committee.
Former state delegate Watkins M. Abbitt Jr. of Appomattox, in central Virginia, met and married lobbyist Madeline Abbitt during his 26-year stint in the state House.
“I was just very careful on what I voted on,” he said. They sought a formal attorney general opinion before getting married. “We walked a tightrope.”
Both Abbitts said he generally abstained when her bills came up in committee, where legislation faces wholesale changes or even defeat before the full chamber has a chance to vote.
But, Abbitt said, it’s impossible to avoid potential conflicts in a citizen legislature.
“I know ’em both,” Abbitt said of Norment and Bezik, “and it wasn’t the first time something like that’s happened in Richmond. And I doubt it’ll be the last.”