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Ruff, Wright: Nothing wrong with tobacco panel job offer

SoVaNow.com / July 02, 2014
Local GOP lawmakers deny any wrongdoing in a politically-charged job offer for Virginia State Senator Phillip Puckett to serve as a paid staff member of the Virginia Tobacco Commission, noting that it’s not uncommon for legislators to leave office to take government positions.

The controversy over Puckett’s June 9 resignation from the Senate — the departure by the long-serving Southwest Virginia Democrat leaves Republicans in full control of the General Assembly — has Senator Frank Ruff and Delegate Tommy Wright wondering what the fuss is all about, including a reported investigation by the FBI.

Ruff, vice-chair of the Tobacco Commission, acknowledged that he knew about the proposed offer of a staff position for Puckett, a former tobacco commissioner, and the Russell County senator’s plans to retire from the Senate. At the time, the Senate was split 20-20 between the parties, with a Democratic lieutenant governor providing the tie-breaking vote.

“Kilgore [Tobacco Commission Chairman Terry Kilgore] called me the week before, telling me that Puckett was going to resign effective the following Monday,” said Ruff of the sequence of events. “We both agreed that Puckett is a solid person and that he was an asset when he served on the Commission. We agreed that with his legislative, business, and banking background, he would serve the Commission well.”

After an onslaught of criticism, Puckett disavowed interest in the job, although subsequent communications have revealed that he was deeply involved in its development.

The proposed job — “Senior Advisor to the Commission” — was “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,” according to a June 5 e-mail written by Ned Stephenson, deputy director of the panel, formally known as the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission (TICR).

The Tobacco Commission is a 31-member board created nearly 15 years ago to dole out money from a nationwide legal settlement with cigarette makers. The group is charged with promoting economic growth and development throughout Southside and Southwest Virginia.

In Ruff’s view, “there is no difference” between the commission recruiting Puckett to fill the new position and Governor Terry McAuliffe tapping retiring Del. Bob Brink “for a management position in Richmond just this week.”

Brink (D-Arlington/McLean), who has served for the past 17 years, announced Friday that he would retire from the House effective June 30 to become deputy commissioner for aging services in the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services. He will start July 1.

The release this week of 74 pages of e-mails by tobacco commission officials, obtained by The Washington Post and Richmond Times-Dispatch under Virginia’s open records law, sheds light on plans that were being formulated behind the scenes for the 11 days preceding Puckett’s resignation from the Senate.

The e-mails have fueled complaints that Puckett retired as part of a quid pro quo for a tailor-made tobacco staff job, thus tipping control of the State Senate to Republicans and robbing Democrats of their leverage in a four-month state budget standoff.

After Puckett resigned, Republicans in both chambers approved a budget without Medicaid expansion, a top priority of Gov. Terry McAuliffe and legislative Democrats. To prevent a state government shutdown before the June 30 fiscal year deadline, McAuliffee signed the budget, although he vowed separately to expand health coverage for low-income Virginians without the General Assembly’s approval.

According to Ruff, this is not the first time a member of one political party has offered the member of an opposing party a job. Going back a decade, Ruff said, “then Governor, now U.S. Senator Mark Warner had someone approach [Ruff] about taking a job in his [Warner’s] administration.”

Charles L. Waddell, father-in-law of current Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats, quit the State Senate in favor of a position as Deputy Transportation Secretary with Republican Governor Jim Gilmore’s administration. The special election that followed in 1998 gave Republicans a 21-19 majority and control of the State Senate for the first time in more than a century.

Ruff noted that neither of these events drew the attention of the FBI, which is reportedly investigating Puckett, Kilgore, the TICR and its interim executive director, Tim Pfohl.

Since former executive director Neil Noyes retired in August 2013, Ruff said the TICR has been short-handed. Ruff said both he and Chairman Kilgore agreed, “It would be good to have Tim’s [old] position filled by someone who knows the tobacco region.” Before becoming the Interim Executive Director, Pfohl oversaw administration of the grants for the TIC.

In light of Puckett’s imminent resignation, Ruff said, “We scheduled a meeting of the Executive Committee as soon as practical to discuss what could be worked out. The position would have the same benefits as a state employee.”

Puckett was not unknown to TICR officials, having served as a commissioner and executive committee member until 2012 when his term ended. While he would not have been the only person on the panel with banking experience — both Ned Stephenson who works in the Richmond office of the TIC and Commission member Cindy Thomas of South Hill are bankers — Ruff said Puckett’s banking, business and legislative experience would help sell the area to foreign businesses.

The example Ruff cited is the Chinese pulp and paper company, Shandong Tranlin Paper Co., Ltd., that is investing two billion and creating 2,000 jobs in Chesterfield. The company had looked at Pittsylvania before going to Chesterfield, Ruff said: “You want someone like Phillip” negotiating for the region. “[Shandong Tranlin Paper Co.] may have still ended up going to Chesterfield rather than Pittsylvania but [with Puckett’s knowledge and skills] we would know that we did everything we could to get them to our region.”

Del. Tommy Wright (R-Victoria) said the only thing he knows of the issue is what he reads in the newspapers. While Wright is a member of the TICR, he does not serve on the Executive Committee and he said he was not privy to discussions over the hiring of Puckett. He did receive notice of a called executive committee meeting, two days after Pickett’s resignation, when the proposed hiring was to be discussed, but the notice did not give Puckett’s name nor discuss the position to be filled.

While Wright acknowledges that the matter could have been handled better, he does not believe that “anything will be found by [a federal] grand jury. I was told the Attorney General had looked it and saw no illegality.”

Neither Wright nor Ruff have been invited to testify before the grand jury, and the FBI has contacted neither of them, each said.

When asked whether this incident is a “black eye” for the commission or impedes Pfohl’s ability to effectively lead the TICR in the future, Wright said, “No, I don’t think this hurts Tim. From what I’ve read in the paper he would not lose my support.”

Throughout the debate over his potential hiring, Puckett has said his departure was prompted by an unspecified family crisis and his desire to clear the way for his daughter’s appointment to the bench. His claims did not quell the anger expressed by Democrats, who accused Republicans of bribing Puckett with job offers for himself and his daughter, in the wake of his resignation.

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