So, there will be no indictment.
Unlike certain other decisions around the country this fall not to pursue charges in some high-profile cases involving public servants, there will be no marching in the streets here, although perhaps there should be.
We refer, of course, to last week’s announcement that federal authorities have decided not to seek any charges in the case of former state Sen. Phil Puckett, D-Russell County — who quit the state Senate last June, saying it would help clear the way for his daughter to get named to a judgeship.
And, also maybe, a job for himself with the state tobacco commission.
At the behest of a powerful Republican legislator from Southwest Virginia — Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County — the commission had essentially invited Puckett to create his own job description for a post that likely would have come with a six-figure salary and a state car.
Ah, the perks of being in politics.
For Republicans, the upside was clear: If the last Democrat in the legislature from far Southwest Virginia were to resign, his seat would surely go to a Republican (it did) and the GOP would take back control of the closely divided state Senate (it did that, too).
For Puckett, the upside was also clear: His daughter would get a judgeship, which she wouldn’t be appointed to as long as her father was in the legislature. And he’d get a high-paying state job that would boost his state pension.
Was this a bribe — the classic quid pro quo — selling a state Senate seat for the promise of a six-figure job and a judgeship for a family member thrown in? Or just politics as usual?
Federal prosecutors concluded it was the latter. Maybe it really was. But if you’re a cynic who thinks this was all about politics, well, the politics of a criminal case here would have been very messy, because they would have brought in not just a powerful Republican lawmaker but also reached into the office of the state’s Democratic governor.
U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy sent letters to four people telling them the case was being dropped, which suggested those four were the ones who were the targets — Puckett, his son, Joseph Puckett, Kilgore, and also the governor’s chief-of-staff, Paul Reagan. It was Reagan who had unwisely left a voice mail message on Puckett’s phone ticking off a laundry list of state jobs that maybe Puckett’s daughter would like instead of a judgeship. There was essentially a bipartisan bidding war going on.
Now we can all just move along. Nothing to see here.
For the time being, it’s Puckett who is coming up short in the whole deal. He quit his Senate seat, but didn’t get the tobacco commission job — that got dropped once the whole mess became public. We’ll see if the General Assembly goes ahead with the judicial appointment for Martha Ketron come the 2015 session. She’s already an interim judge — named as a fill-in by the other judges in the circuit — so presumably is qualified. The House of Delegates has already voted twice to give her a full term; it was the Senate that balked, because of its own remarkable rules against nepotism.
Family ties excepted, the General Assembly has never seemed to worry much over appearances when it comes to naming judges, anyway. Just this fall, the legislature appointed a judge in Chesterfield County who had been deemed “not qualified” by the local bar association. That soon-to-be-jurist had one qualification, though, that mattered more than the disapproval of the bar. He was married to the campaign manager of a local state legislator.
If there’s any good to come out of the whole thing, it’s this: Statewide attention on the strange political creature that is the tobacco commission, or, more properly, the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission.
The commission was created in 1999 with a mandate to create a new economy in the state’s tobacco-growing counties in Southwest and Southside Virginia. It also was given a $1 billion endowment, part of Virginia’s share in a comprehensive legal settlement against tobacco companies.
Since that time, the commission has been run pretty much how you’d think a government commission would be run when you give it a lot of money, stack it with state legislators and provide no oversight: It’s become a pork barrel, from which politicians can dispense goodies.
To be fair, the commission has undoubtedly done some good work that advances its mission — funding broadband access, for instance, in rural counties that otherwise would never have seen a fiber optic line laid down.
But then there are cases such as the one reported last week: Dominion Resources went looking for public funds to help pay for a natural gas pipeline to a power plant it’s building in Brunswick County. The tobacco commission’s staff calculated $6.5 million would be an appropriate figure. The commission gave Dominion $10 million instead — and then promised two more installments, also for $10 million each. So $30 million in all.
The Associated Press reports that Dominion may not have even asked for that much money; the company just got it, anyway.
Maybe the power plant in Brunswick will, in time, lead to $30 million worth of economic development in a county that, goodness knows, needs some. The unemployment rate there is 9.2 percent — and that’s down from nearly 14 percent a few years ago.
But who knows? Over the years, the tobacco commission has repeatedly resisted outside advice on how to measure the impact of its grants. One former state secretary of commerce and trade, Michael Schewel, estimates half the commission’s money has been well-spent, 25 percent has been frittered away on low-impact projects, and another 25 percent has been spent as what he called “a political tax” — expenditures to make certain politicians look good. If he’s right, that means half the commission’s money has been wasted.
Yet in some quarters, this is what’s called “leadership.”
People in Southwest and Southside Virginia ought to be marching in the street over that.