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.