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Heirs to the throne / June 11, 2014
Maybe Bob McDonnell was onto something after all.

Assuming you had the fortitude to sit through it, you probably remember the “everybody does it” defense that our ex-guv and wife Maureen served up after landing in federal court on the alleged crimes of accepting cash, plane rides, wardrobe bling and other swag from Star Scientific founder Jonnie Williams. The gall of the U.S. Attorney’s office in bringing corruption charges, sniffed the McDonnells: Aside from bad judgment, all they’re guilty of, according to an actual defense filing, no joke, is “routine political conduct.”

Um, no. Routine political conduct, even in these jaded times, doesn’t include elected officials snatching personalized Rolex watches, the latest Oscar de la Renta wear and five-figure “loans” for their personal use. We’ll see what happens at the McDonnells’ trial — due to begin July 28 — but in the court of public opinion, Virginia’s former First Couple has failed miserably in their quest to redefine the parameters of bribery. At this point they should just hope to stay out of jail.

In the identification of means if not ends, however, Bob McDonnell has been quite prescient about one thing: If you’re going to take a walk on the sleazy side in Virginia, there’s no better place to start your stroll than everybody’s favorite way station on Tobacco Road, the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

For McDonnell, the Tobacco Commission was the presumed source of cash for his good buddy Williams — at least, according to federal prosecutors who allege a scheme to convince the Commission to finance medical research on Star Scientific’s Anatabloc diet supplement. As someone who has followed the workings of the Tobacco Commission for a long time, the hilarious part of the story was the casual presumption by McDonnell that, of course, members of the Tobacco Commission would be only too happy to go along with his plan. The only real obstacle was obtaining the cooperation of a research institution — U.Va, Virginia Tech or the like. The leaf panelists? In taking stock of politicians and their piggy banks, it’s useful to think like Bob and count on the honor of thieves.

So here we are. The Tobacco Commission is back in the headlines this week — and not in a good way. Perhaps you’ve heard the news: A Democratic state senator, Phil Puckett of Russell, has resigned. His departure hands control of the State Senate to the GOP; previously, the makeup had been split 20-20, with the Democratic lieutenant governor tipping the balance. Now, Republicans have working majorities in both the House and Senate. All that fuss about partisan deadlock and the General Assembly’s inability to pass a budget in time to avoid a state government shutdown? All taken care of.

Thus comes to a wimpering end the great budget battle of 2014 — with Republicans triumphing in their determination to prevent Virginia from expanding its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act and extending health coverage up to 400,000 low-income Virginians. That all of this could have been accomplished at essentially no cost to the state, with no need for further taxes (we’re paying the tab for Medicaid expansion whether Virginia accepts the benefits or not) was of zero apparent concern to Republican lawmakers. Nor are they much interested in creating jobs in hard-pressed regions such as Southside Virginia, which would have gained thousands of good-paying positions in the health care field with the Medicaid expansion. From his rarified perch at the Capital, a Southwest Democrat decided to cut and run, hence thousands of people, some his own constituents, must suffer needlessly, and some may even die — all just another day at the office for Virginia’s honorable citizen-legislators.

The Tobacco Commission figures prominently into this sordid tale exactly as you’d expect: as a slush fund, the source of payroll to offer a cushy sinecure for the ex-senator. According to the invaluable reporting of The Washington Post, the leaf panel chairman, Scott County Del. Terry Kilgore, had worked out a deal for Puckett to join the commission’s paid staff as deputy director. Trading a seat in the legislature for a fat salary? Alas for Puckett, the best-laid plan went awry. After a predictable uproar ensued, the senator disavowed interest in the commission position, leaving him high and dry — a suitable fate for someone so clueless as to not understand how craven and unethical his actions would be perceived to be.

(By leaving the Senate, Puckett does clear the way for his daughter to gain a local judgeship, no small consolation. Previously, her ascent had been stymied by the quaint Senate tradition of denying judicial appointments to the family of sitting members.)

Puckett’s head-in-tail retreat notwithstanding, Kilgore steadfastly maintains that the job offer to Phil Puckett was based solely on merit: “If he’s available, we would like to have him because of his knowledge of the area, and he formerly was on the Tobacco Commission for years, and he knew what we’re about,” Kilgore told The Post.

Hoo boy. Does he ever. In all the Commission meeting minutes I’ve ever read, it’s hard to think of a single time that Phil Puckett made a useful utterance about the commission’s spending priorities and choices, or added much of anything to the debate at all. He has fit nicely into the mold of elected Southside and Southwest Democrats — not that there are many, mind you — who have been content to play the part of Silent Sam from the commission’s outset. With the notable exception of former Del. Barnie Day of Patrick, Democratic office holders have taken a disinterested approach to the entire enterprise, ceding control to Republican operators like the thoroughly corrupt Terry Kilgore. One imagines Kilgore must’ve gotten quite a kick out of this latest idea to add a yes-man like Phil Puckett to the commission’s otherwise exemplary professional staff.

The Virginia Tobacco Commission for Indemnification and Community Revitalization has accomplished some good things in Southside and Southwest Virginia. The indemnification part of its mission was much-needed after the national tobacco settlement diminished the vitality of tobacco farming in the region. The community revitalization side speaks for itself; the results, not so much. Yet the commission has poured money into some worthy initiatives, from regional broadband to educational and job training scholarships, and it would be a grievous blow to rural Virginia if it were forced completely out of business.

But let’s not make the mistake of overlooking the obvious, a plain fact about the Virginia Tobacco Commission that this week’s sleazy machinations bring into full light: Bribery lies at the heart of its mission — at least as that mission has been defined by Republicans and Democrats alike. I once had the pleasure of hearing a Republican delegate express openly (albeit in private conversation) the truth that once you strip away the pretense, the Tobacco Commission essentially exists to bribe companies to come to communities to which they otherwise wouldn’t give a second look. The alternate idea — using the billion-dollar-plus endowment to improve communities from the ground up, so they’ll won’t be such tough sells to outsiders — never gained purchase in the commission’s hive mind.

In adopting one policy choice over the other, the Commission, it must be noted, has basically stuck to the way the economic development game is played nowadays. But with truckloads of moolah providing many justifications, it hardly comes as a surprise that Kilgore & Co. might get full of themselves and direct the Commission budget toward nefarious and self-interested ends. (Just ask Frank Ruff about the self-interested part — you’ll never guess which public entity has underwritten his European travel for three of the past four years.) These ethical bloopers should come as no surprise; as far back as 2008, a blue-ribbon commission headed by former Gov. Gerald Baliles to examine the workings of the Tobacco Commission flagged the outsized role that legislators play on the panel, and suggested a more hands-off approach — in the classic mode of a staff-run foundation with board members setting the big-picture goals. Six years later, the big picture for Terry Kilgore consists of pulling off a feat of political trickery to screw over Virginia’s poor. In doing so, no doubt he killed more potential jobs in Southside and Southwest than the Tobacco Commission can has created lately.

With Phil Puckett’s departure, with the collapse of the party’s negotiating posture on the budget, and with the demise of Medicaid expansion in the General Assembly for at least a couple of more years, Democrats in Richmond got pawned this week, big-time. What are they going to do about it? If I’m Terry McAuliffe, I’m thinking it’s high time to pull a legislative end-around and launch a long-rumored public-private partnership to achieve Medicaid expansion. But Assembly Democrats need to do something, too: It’s past time for them to make a stink about the Tobacco Commission and work to wrest control away from the political hacks, regardless of party.

Towards that end: Why not introduce a bill to depose every single legislator who sits on the 31-person board? You can’t look at career politicians like Frank Ruff and Tommy Ruff and seriously make the argument that they’re better qualified to serve over someone who actually runs a business — it barely matters which kind. One could also make a good case for quasi-disbanding the Tobacco Commission and assigning its remaining funds to local endowments, each preferably armed with a strong educational focus. Heck, at this point the commission would be in better hands even with a bunch of Tea Partyers calling the shots. And by the way, why aren’t those guys screaming bloody murder about government spending and corruption when for once they’d actually have a point?

As for Phil Puckett, we should offer a brief note of thanks for the reminder that political rot runs up both sides of the partisan tree. Virginia Democrats (and a handful of Republicans in the Senate) tried ardently to do the right thing by hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens of the Commonwealth by hanging tough on Medicaid expansion — and Puckett ruined it all. True, for all his labors the senator now carries a permanent stain on his reputation. But leavening that loss is a plum judgeship for his daughter. Plus, if you really want to search for a bright side, there’s the fact that Puckett has committed an act not entirely dissimilar to what Bob and Maureen McDonnell stand accused of in federal court, and there’s no apparent inclination to bring indictments. Speaking of the McDonnells, though, Puckett proved himself on par with Virginia’s fashion-obsessed First Couple in at least one respect:

In politics if nothing else, 30 pieces of silver never goes out of style.

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