Philip P. Puckett, shown in 2010, resigned from the Virginia Senate, flipping control of the chamber to Republicans and thwarting Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s signature goal of expanding health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. (Steve Helber/AP)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s top lieutenant apologized Friday after admitting that he had tried to keep a Democrat from quitting the evenly divided state Senate with the prospect of a lucrative state job for the senator’s daughter.

But it was not entirely clear to Richmond’s increasingly bewildered and antsy political class just what Chief of Staff Paul Reagan had done.

Had he engaged in a crass and potentially illegal bidding war with Republicans who, in the middle of a standoff over the state budget and Medicaid expansion, wanted Democrat Phillip P. Puckett out of the Senate as desperately as McAuliffe’s administration wanted him in?

Or had Reagan merely committed politics as usual with one decidedly inconvenient twist: a voice-mail message that eventually put his sausage-making on public display?

The shifting and sometimes contradictory explanations that flowed from McAuliffe’s office only added to the sense of disorientation in a state capital still recovering from the shock of seeing popular former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, convicted of corruption in August. First, McAuliffe’s spokesman said that the governor had been unaware of Reagan’s actions before Thursday but defended the chief of staff when asked what the governor thought of the voicemail. On Friday, McAuliffe (D) said Reagan had made a mistake.

Paul Reagan, Va. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s chief of staff, left a voice mail for Phillip P. Puckett in the frenzied days leading up to the senator’s resignation in June. (Steve Helber/AP)

Richmond, a place with scant history of political scandal, faced the specter of another federal investigation winding its way into a governor’s office.

Since June, federal officials have been probing Puckett’s abrupt resignation, looking at whether Republicans used job offers for him and his daughter to lure him out of the Senate. Now, political observers wonder if the inquiry will have to expand to the potential job that Reagan dangled to try to make him stay.

“It appears now that the ethics commission in Virginia consists of the U.S. attorney for the Western District and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District,” said Bob Gibson, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, referring to the offices behind the Puckett and McDonnell investigations, respectively. “And that’s really sad.”

Some of McAuliffe’s harshest critics expressed wariness about the prospect that the investigation could expand, even as they contended that anything known about what Republicans offered Puckett paled next to the blunt link described in Reagan’s voice mail.

“This is the danger of criminalizing ordinary politics,” said Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun). “When you do that, it can come back to bite you. . . . If [the U.S. attorney] is going to investigate Republicans for job discussions, he can’t possibly ignore job offers by Democrats.”

Officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia, which convened a grand jury to investigate Puckett’s resignation, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy declined to say whether prosecutors had interviewed anyone in the office or subpoenaed any records. He also declined to explain why he initially declared forcefully — and erroneously — that no one on the staff had spoken to Puckett about a job. Coy refused to say whether he had made a mistake when he claimed to have spoken to everyone in the office — or whether Reagan had failed to reveal his message to Puckett.

The first account of Reagan’s actions came late Thursday, when The Washington Post reported that the longtime Virginia political hand had floated the idea of providing a top state job to Puckett’s daughter if the senator stayed in his seat. Reagan conveyed the suggestion in a voice mail that was described to The Post by three people who had heard it.

It had been known publicly since June that Puckett had been talking about a job for himself and a judgeship for his daughter when he abruptly stepped down that month. Puckett said at the time that there was no quid pro quo.

News of Reagan’s voice mail was the first indication that anyone working for McAuliffe — who as recently as last week called Puckett “despicable” for seeming to trade potential job offers for his seat — had offered a potential job as an enticement to stay.

Reagan mentioned the possibility of heading a state agency, including the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, a prestigious slot in the coal country of far southwestern Virginia where the Pucketts live.

“We would be very eager to accommodate her, if, if that would be helpful in keeping you in the Senate,” Reagan said in the message, according to a transcript provided to The Post and not disputed by McAuliffe’s office. “We, we would basically do anything.”

On Thursday, Coy said Reagan had made the offer because the Senate Republicans’ anti-
nepotism policy was holding Martha Puckett Ketron’s judicial appointment “hostage.” She had been serving temporarily as juvenile judge but could not win a full appointment to the bench while her father was in the Senate.

Also Thursday, Coy said that McAuliffe was unaware of Reagan’s offer but was not displeased with his actions, saying, “The governor has full confidence in Paul Reagan.”

On Friday, Reagan issued a statement that gave a different rationale: advancing McAuliffe’s signature goal of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, an effort that collapsed when Puckett eventually resigned, throwing control of the Senate to Republicans. He also apologized for letting his boss, the governor, down.

“In the fight to expand health care to uninsured Virginians, I was overzealous and acted with poor judgment,” Reagan said in the statement. “I certainly regret this and will always try to achieve the high standards demanded by Governor McAuliffe.”

And McAuliffe himself, who the night before had defended Reagan through a spokesman, pronounced himself “disappointed.”

“Paul acted hastily and made an error in judgment — he acknowledges that and recognizes that it was inconsistent with the way I run my administration,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “I was disappointed that this occurred and have made it clear to every member of my staff that this is not how we do business. This is a lesson to my staff — people make mistakes — but it’s important that we learn from them and move on.”

Reaction elsewhere in Richmond to the news was muted, with Democrats defending Reagan and Republicans pointing out what they see as Democrats’ hypocrisy for criticizing Puckett and the GOP even though Reagan made a similar gesture.

“I’m obviously disturbed about the report that you all had in the paper this morning,” said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) on a conference call with reporters on another topic. “Let’s see what happens with it. The thing that’s most troubling about it is the governor’s reaction to what all happened with Senator Puckett. He used some pretty strong language about what happened with Senator Puckett, and then to have this come forward a few days later is pretty surprising.”

Before Reagan issued his apology, two top Democrats in the state Senate said they saw nothing wrong with his behavior.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) echoed Democrats’ position that Reagan’s voice-mail for Puckett does not rise to the level of the accusations against Republicans.

“I think it’s completely different from what certain Republicans are alleged to have done. It appears from the transcript I have seen that Paul Reagan was just trying to talk to Senator Puckett in a fashion to preserve the status quo,” McEachin said. “He wasn’t seeking to have Senator Puckett do anything. He was just saying that his daughter might have other options. On the other hand, what the Republicans are accused of is not preserving the status quo but allegedly offering Senator Puckett a job for himself and a judgeship for his daughter. That is wholly different.”

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) called Reagan’s offer “nothing out of the ordinary” and recalled then-governor James S. Gilmore III’s 1997 hire of a Democratic senator from Loudoun County, Charles Waddell, as his deputy transportation secretary, giving Republicans a one-seat advantage in the upper chamber.

“I don’t think this hinges so much on whether you were offered the job but how it was done,” Saslaw said.

Although he reserved judgment on whether Puckett did anything wrong in appearing to resign in exchange for a job at the tobacco commission, Saslaw said Reagan’s action was different because he “wasn’t fattening Puckett’s wallet, it was offering his daughter a job.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story used imprecise language to describe Gov Terry McAuliffe’s opinion of his chief of staff’s actions in suggesting a job for former senator Phillip P. Puckett’s daughter. This version has been updated to more accurately reflect the governor’s opinion.