Saturday, June 28, 2014

Puckett and Brink and False Equivalencies

When I saw the announcement that Del. Bob Brink was resigning from the Virginia House of Delegates to accept the position of deputy commissioner for aging services for the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services, my first reaction was dismay. 

Sorry, Del. Brink, this has nothing to do with you or your fitness to be the deputy commissioner and everything to do with appearances.  That’s because of events beyond your control, specifically the superficial similarity to the situation of Sen. Phil Puckett’s resignation.

Given the turmoil over Phil Puckett’s resignation from the Senate immediately ahead of an important budget vote, the inevitable question had to come up: what’s the difference between these two situations?
I’ll be the first to admit that at first glance they appear similar. They are alike in the way that apples and oranges are both fruit. But that’s where the similarities end. Here’s the more savory set of circumstances.
Governor McAuliffe just announced Del. Brink’s appointment to an existing and vacant position that needed filling.  There is nothing about the timing of Del. Brink’s resignation that would bring any special value to either the governor or any other party.  Nor does Brink’s resignation in any way alter the balance of the House of Delegates.  So, other than Brink getting a good job and the state getting the services of a competent deputy commissioner, there’s no hint of any unfair benefit to either party.
In truth a governor (or chairman) has the right to appoint a sitting legislator to fill a legitimate vacancy regardless of how inconvenient it is for the party that loses that seat (and leadership).  It’s been done before.  Sure partisans may call foul and label the guy who resigns a traitor.  But the actions do not rise to the level of illegality.  That’s not the real issue. What is an issue, however, are the facts of the following particular situation.
Ironically, the Washington Post on the same day as the Brink announcement ran an article on a series of emails by the principals regarding the offer of a job to Phil Puckett. Look at that narrative for Puckett’s circumstances and see if you don’t spot several important differences from Brink’s resignation and subsequent appointment.
Del. Terry Kilgore, who heads the Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission, created a position for Sen. Phil Puckett – one where Puckett was asked to write his own job description.  The offer of this newly created position came immediately before an important senate vote on the governor’s budget and the hotly contested Medicaid expansion.  And Puckett’s resignation would tip the balance of the Senate into the hands of the party to which the person creating and offering the job belongs.
The interim executive director of the tobacco commission, Timothy Pfohl, even recognized how dicey this would look. The Washington Post, today, reported on the series of emails between Pfohl, Kilgore, and Puckett, where Pfohl pointed out the timing problem and suggested that they “decouple” the offer from the resignation.  This looks like an underling leaving a paper trail to cover his own back.  He had to do what his boss, Kilgore, told him to do.  But he wanted it on record that he objected and offered an alternative.
I am going to admit straight out that I don’t know whether Kilgore and Puckett’s actions are illegal.  But the whole mess certainly reeks of something fishy.  And it doesn’t just start and end with the suspiciously timed job offer.
The truth is even without the tobacco commission job, the fact that Puckett claimed he stepped down so his daughter, Martha P. Ketron, could be confirmed for a judgeship isn’t much more ethical.  The fact that Tommy Norment, the new majority leader in the Senate, was holding up confirmation since the last session where he presided as majority leader (under the McDonnell administration) simply adds the element of coercion rather than outright bribery to the mix.
One thing I don’t understand and so far nobody that I’ve read has explained is the so-called Senate policy of not appointing the close relative of a sitting member to any judgeship.  While I realize the motive is to avoid nepotism, I’d like an explanation of whether this is an informal tradition, a written policy, or an actual law.  How long has this policy been observed?  Why is it just in the Senate and not the House? I find it interesting that every reporter has simply accepted the explanation given without questioning it further.  But if I were still a reporter, I’d be digging for some answers to truly understand the backdrop for what happened.  Here’s why.
A reasonable person concerned with this could ask whether this tradition is longstanding or was concocted to keep a qualified person from being confirmed for some additional motive having nothing to do with nepotism.  Was it part of the game plan to force a senator out of his seat so that his daughter could get her job? And does that make it less quid pro quo to resign for his daughter’s gain rather than for his own personal gain?
I will repeat that I don’t know that any of this rises to the level of breaking the law.  But I spent a number of years working in government and I am familiar with ethics rules and regulations.  Generally in a well-run government, simply refraining from illegal activities is the bare minimum that you do.  Public servants are required to go above and beyond that standard and to refrain from any activity such that a reasonable person could conclude that there was a conflict of interest. 

Even if you don’t believe what Phil Puckett and Terry Kilgore did was illegal, by the true measure of ethical behavior, all but the most partisan would agree that these were not honorable men nor dedicated public servants putting their constituents before their own selfish gain and power grabs. 

And that is very different from a public servant simply changing jobs to continue serving the people of Virginia.  By the way, a hearty congratulations, Del. Brink.  After explaining the difference, I am not dismayed anymore.  I think he will do an excellent job serving Virginia honorably.