The Washington Post reports that Virginia state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, a Democrat, “will announce his resignation Monday, effective immediately, paving the way to appoint his daughter to a judgeship and Puckett to the job of deputy director of the state tobacco commission.” Currently, the Virginia senate is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, with Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam holding the balance of power. If Puckett resigns, Republicans will gain control of the body for at least as long as it takes to elect a replacement.
The full details of this arrangement, including whether or not Puckett was explicitly offered the position as deputy director of the tobacco commission in return for his agreement to resign his senate seat, are not yet known. Although the executive director of the commission is appointed by the governor — who is currently Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe — the deputy director is appointed by the commission itself. Both the chair and the vice chair of the commission are Republicans.
If Puckett was offered the seat on this commission in exchange for his decision to resign from the state legislature, however, he may have committed a very serious crime. Under Virginia’s bribery law, it is a felony for a state lawmaker to “accept or agree to accept from another … any pecuniary benefit offered, conferred or agreed to be conferred as consideration for or to obtain or influence the recipient’s decision, opinion, recommendation, vote or other exercise of discretion as a public servant or party official.”
Given this statutory language, two questions need to be answered before Puckett could be prosecuted. The first is whether Puckett agreed to accept the tobacco commission job “as consideration for” his resignation from the state senate — that is, whether there was a quid pro quo deal where the job was offered up as the prize Puckett received if he agreed to resign. The second is whether Puckett’s resignation counts as an “exercise of discretion as a public servant.” Based on a search of Virginia court cases using the legal search engine Lexis, there does not appear to be a court decision answering this question.
In any event, the circumstances of this anticipated resignation — in which a Democratic senator throws control of the state legislature to the GOP, and then immediately receives a job from a commission controlled by a Republican chair and vice-chair — is suspicious. It also could have very serious consequences for Virginia’s least fortunate residents.
Gov. McAuliffe is currently embroiled in a fight with Republicans, who control the state house, over whether Virginia should accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. If Republicans take the state senate, even briefly, they can use their control over the entire legislature to pass a budget that does not include the Medicaid expansion. Though McAuliffe could veto the budget, Republicans could use that veto to try to blame him for an ensuing government shutdown.
In the wake of a “firestorm of criticism regarding his resignation from the Virginia Senate,” Puckett withdrew his name from consideration for the tobacco commission job. The fact that Puckett will not take this job, however, will not necessarily save him from prosecution if he did, in fact, agree to trade his seat in the state senate for a new role with the tobacco commission before this firestorm arose. Virginia’s bribery law provides that anyone who “accepts or agrees to accept” a bribe in return for an “exercise of discretion as a public servant” is guilty of a felony, so Puckett could have committed the crime of bribery if and when he agreed to deal away his senate seat — regardless of whether he later decided not to take the prize that he was offered.
It’s also worth noting that the bribery law also punishes anyone who “offers, confers or agrees to confer upon another . . . .any pecuniary benefit as consideration for or to obtain or influence the recipient’s decision, opinion, recommendation, vote or other exercise of discretion as a public servant or party official.” Thus, if a Republican official or other individual offered Puckett the tobacco commission job in exchange for his resignation from the senate, this action does not become less criminal just because Puckett ultimately decided not to take this job.