This evening, the Washington Post’s Laura Vozella covered big political news:
Republicans appear to have outmaneuvered Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state budget standoff by persuading a Democratic senator to resign his seat, at least temporarily giving the GOP control of the chamber and possibly dooming the governor’s push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) 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, three people familiar with the plan said Sunday.
This is, it must be said, a brilliant bit of maneuvering on the part of Republicans in the legislature. With the Senate split 20-20 between parties (and the Democratic lieutenant governor able to act as the tiebreaker on only certain matters), persuading Puckett to quit is a clever move. No doubt his Republican colleagues were aware that he was interested in retiring after 17 years in office. (He’s up for another 4-year term in November of next year, so it’s decision-making time for him.) By offering him a plum job, contingent on quitting his job before the long-delayed budget vote could be held, they will regain a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, making the governor’s demand unreasonable. Politically speaking, well-played.
That said, this is bullshit. In a legislative session that had a major theme of ethics reform, during which Governor Bob McDonnell was indicted (the week after his term ended, an apparent Justice Department courtesy), wrapping it up with a political coup contingent on trading control of an entire chamber for a state job for a legislator and a judgeship for his daughter? It’s absurd. It’s the stuff of parody. This would be the kicker at the end of an episode of Alpha House.
I don’t think it’s tone-deaf on the part of Republicans, I just think that they don’t care. And Puckett’s constituents almost certainly say that they are opposed to “Obamacare,” when asked in a survey, and his new job—handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to rural areas—will make him very popular in his district. Basically, he gets the job of Santa Claus. So not only will his (former) constituents probably not object, but he’s out of office anyway, so what they think also doesn’t really matter.
Is Puckett’s daughter qualified to be a judge? Do Republicans care? Does Puckett care? Is this how we want to be selecting our judges? Is it appropriate for a legislator to require that his own daughter be made a judge? Shouldn’t, in fact, the legislator have absolutely nothing to do, in any way at all, with his daughter’s potential appointment to a judgeship?
The worst part is that this isn’t illegal. State ethics laws might as well not exist. We’ve only had a couple of state-level elected officials indicted on ethics charges in recent history.
First was Delegate Phil Hamilton, who in 2009 was caught holding a state job that he created legislatively, in exchange for being awarded the job. Especially problematic was that he apparently never even showed up for the $40,000/year part-time job. He’s in prison now, and will be through the rest of the decade.
Second was Gov. McDonnell, indicted in January after accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from a major campaign donor in exchange for favorable treatment of and promotion of that donor’s sham medical treatments. Declared McDonnell, of Star Scientific’s flagship product, unregulated supplements: “They work for me!” (Just this week they changed their name to Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals, in what will be a fruitless effort to outrun their terrible reputation.) The indictment charges McDonnell with honest-services fraud, false statements, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice, among other things.
Let us now consider a series of odd coincidences here. Puckett was wooed away to run the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which paid $309M to Virginia tobacco producers to persuade them to stop growing tobacco. The organization is funded by the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which was the result of a lawsuit that 46 states brought against Altria (née Philip Morris), R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard. In 1998, the companies settled, agreeing to pay $206 billion to those states. Virginia’s share is distributed via the state-chartered organization that Puckett will be headed up. And then there’s the company that brought McDonnell down, Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals, née Star Scientific, née, Star Tobacco. Star Tobacco manufactured cigarettes and chewing tobacco, and they remained in the tobacco business straight through 2012, as they sought to rebrand themselves as a pharmaceutical company. (Pharmaceuticals—or, rather, “supplements”—manufactured with tobacco, appallingly.) Although Star Tobacco refused to join the settlement, states ultimately got their money via Brown & Williamson, which manufactured Star Tobacco’s products in their plants. So we’ve got Puckett going to work for the organization that was funded by the profits generated by the company that allegedly bribed McDonnell.
But, wait, there’s more. The tobacco commission actually gave a $2M grant to Star Tobacco to help them promote their cigarettes and chew, appallingly. And—get this—a big part of what McDonnell is in trouble for was that he allegedly tried to persuade the tobacco commission to provide a grant to Star Scientific, by way of funding clinical trials of one of their tobacco supplements at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, to provide a sheen of legitimacy to what is now clearly a useless substance.
And it gets better still! The chairman of the tobacco commission is Terry Kilgore, the Republican legislator who is said to have struck the deal with Puckett. Kilgore’s twin brother, Jerry Kilgore, isn’t merely a former attorney general of Virginia, but he’s also the attorney representing Johnny Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, in the McDonnell case.
Here’s the thing that you should know, if you’re not from Virginia: tobacco isn’t a big business here. It hasn’t been for a long, long time, and the tiny shreds of it that were left fled the country with the passage of NAFTA. While it’s true that the General Assembly has tobacco leaves painted on the ceiling of Capitol Rotunda, but that’s a holdover from decades ago, long before Puckett or McDonnell were in office.
These two tobacco-related scandals aren’t about the power of tobacco, it’s about the profound lack of ethics laws in Virginia.
We talk a good game here about “the Virginia Way.” This is the notion that rhetorical civility, bipartisanship, comity, and transparency are all that’s really necessary. We don’t need laws about ethics, because everybody in government is honest and everybody in the public knows it. We don’t need regulation of businesses, because their inspections are on file in a cabinet in Richmond where anybody can go between the hours of 9–5 (but not during the lunch hour) and ask to look at them, and isn’t that transparency? The people in power claim to truly believe this, and they put on a very convincing face while explaining that they truly believe it. I know these people. I have spoken on panels with these people (in opposition to them, confessedly), and I have put on events at which they have spoken about the Virginia Way. It is now entirely evident that these people are utterly, humiliatingly wrong, but, much like legislative Republicans and Phil Puckett right now, they just don’t care, because it’s working out for them.
Kilgore and company will get their majority, and they’ll be able to keep 400,000 Virginians from getting health insurance and the state from getting $1.7B in federal taxes already being collected from Virginians, which are very important to them for some reason that they can’t quite explain. Puckett will get a job, with a salary that Kilgore says he’ll determine at a later date. (Can you believe that Puckett is quitting his Senate seat in exchange for a job with an undetermined salary? Yeah, neither can I.) Apparently that moral calculus—he gets a job, 400,000 people don’t get health care—makes sense to him.
This entire sad show—bound to make Virginia a national laughingstock yet again—is the cherry on top of the General Assembly’s completely useless ethics reform bill which, of course, does absolutely nothing to prohibit this. Selling your seat in exchange for a couple of state jobs is something that they never considered, despite its obviousness, because the entire bill was a charade, a performance for the benefit of voters. Well, perhaps “benefit” isn’t the word. The only people benefiting from this are the 140 members of the legislature. I can think of nineteen senators who might be wishing they’d written a better bill.