The Democratic leader in Virginia’s house of delegates is “very troubled” by the resignation Monday of State Sen. Phillip Puckett (D) amid theories that Republicans persuaded him to step down by offering him a government job and his daughter a potential judgeship.
Virginia House Minority Leader David Toscano told TPM on Monday that Puckett’s move was “extremely surprising,” creating an “appearance of impropriety” that raises enough questions to warrant an inquiry of improper behavior on the part of Puckett, Senate Republicans and the GOP-led state tobacco commission, with which Puckett is reportedly being considered for a job.
“I’ve known Senator Puckett for a long time. I like Senator Puckett. But I’m very discouraged and very troubled by the way this has been done, and the theories that there has been some kind of offer from Republicans to get him out of the Senate,” Toscano said in a phone interview on Monday. “I’m very troubled by it.”
“A number of us have been very concerned about how the [tobacco] commission operates with very little accountability,” Toscano said. “If it’s true that there’s been an offer or suggestion that he’d take employment with that commission and it can be linked to his resignation, I think it’d warrant some kind of investigation.”
Toscano made clear he wasn’t calling for a criminal investigation because it was “too early to know” that the situation amounts to bribery under Virginia’s laws. “There may not have been any laws broken at all,” he said. “But there certainly is an appearance of impropriety.”
For now, Toscano said, “the public needs to take a close look at this and the media needs to shine a light on this. We’ll determine later whether it should be an executive type of review or a legislative review.”
A request for comment to Puckett’s office was not immediately returned.
Puckett’s intention to resign was first reported Sunday night by the Washington Post, pointing out that it “pav[es] the way to appoint his daughter to a judgeship and Puckett to the job of deputy director of the state tobacco commission.” Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R), who chairs the tobacco commission, told the local news outlet TriCities.com that Puckett would be “a perfect fit” for a job with the commission and that he has discussed the idea with him.
The major upshot for Republicans is that Puckett’s move gives them a 20-19 edge in the Senate — and the majority. It allows them to pass a budget, together with the Republican-controlled House, that excludes an expansion of Medicaid to 400,000 Virginians, made possible by Obamacare and championed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). The Medicaid expansion has been the subject of a standoff that threatens a shutdown of the state government when the commonwealth’s new fiscal year begins on July 1.
Toscano said Puckett’s resignation “definitely makes it harder” to expand Medicaid.
“I think it’d be extremely ironic because so many of Sen. Puckett’s constituents would benefit from the Medicaid expansion,” he said. “His district has got to have one of the largest number of folks who’d benefit. And for him to leave under this cloud would leave them in greater peril.”
An aide to McAuliffe declined to comment on a possible investigation and wouldn’t speculate on whether the governor would veto a budget that excludes a Medicaid expansion. The aide provided TPM with a statement from McAuliffe on Puckett’s resignation.
“I am deeply disappointed by this news and the uncertainty it creates at a time when 400,000 Virginians are waiting for access to quality health care, especially in Southwest Virginia,” the governor said. “This situation is unacceptable, but the bipartisan majority in the Senate and I will continue to work hard to put Virginians first and find compromise on a budget that closes the coverage gap.”