The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the circumstances surrounding the recent resignation of state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell, including his alleged consideration for a job on the state tobacco commission and the pending judicial appointment of his daughter in Southwest Virginia.
Sources familiar with the probe, speaking on condition of anonymity, said representatives of the FBI and United States Attorney's Office for the Western District of Virginia have been conducting interviews, including with elected officials who may have knowledge of the chain of events.
One source said a grand jury will convene in Abingdon next week to hear testimony on the matter.
Puckett chose to leave office before his term expired and in the midst of a protracted partisan stalemate in the General Assembly over the budget and Medicaid expansion.
Puckett's resignation, effective Monday, June 9, came at a pivotal time, effectively tilting the balance of power in the Virginia Senate to Republicans. The GOP’s new 20-19 edge paved the way for the Senate to join GOP-controlled House to pass a budget last week with an amendment that could scuttle Democrats' hopes of expanding Medicaid.
FBI spokeswoman Dee Rybiski said Wednesday the bureau will neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.
Brian McGinn, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy in the Western District, said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an ongoing investigation.
In a statement following his decision, Puckett said that he resigned, in part, to remove Senate Republican opposition to his daughter receiving a full-time appointment to as a Juvenile and Domestic Relations judge in the 29th District.
In the 40 member Senate, approving a judge would require 21 votes. Before Puckett's resignation, Democrats held 20 votes and Republicans held 20 votes, meaning that at least one Republican would have to join all Democrats to approve her appointment.
Senate Republicans had told Puckett that they objected to naming his daughter Martha P. Ketron, to the bench, as part of a belief that the chamber should not appoint judges who are family to a sitting senator.
“She cannot be confirmed into the position permanently as long as I serve in the General Assembly,” Puckett wrote in a statement the day he resigned.
“My colleagues on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that she is fully qualified for the position. At this point in my life, I feel that I cannot allow my political career to hamper my daughter's future and her desire to serve the families and children of our area on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.”
In interviews, Del. Terry G. Kilgore, R-Scott, chairman of the tobacco commission, acknowledged that he had spoken to Puckett before his resignation about taking a job with the commission.
The commission is entrusted with awarding millions in tobacco settlement money to smoking cessation and economic development projects in former tobacco growing communities. The job would have fattened Puckett's state pension, calculating his retirement benefit based on a full-time job that pays much more than the $18,000 a year paid to part-time state senators.
In his statement at the time, Puckett described as “incorrect” reports that he had resigned to take a job with the commission. “I have never been officially offered a job by the Tobacco Commission,” he stated.
But Kilgore had scheduled a meeting of the commission's executive committee for the Wednesday following Puckett's resignation, to consider hiring him for the job of deputy director.
Kilgore canceled the meeting after the resignation prompted a firestorm, issuing a statement explaining that “a short while ago, I learned that Senator Puckett is no longer interested in a position with the Tobacco Commission.”
Puckett and Kilgore did not return calls seeking comment.
The tobacco commission has come under scrutiny in recent months, with Gov. Terry McAuliffe requesting information on the process and rationale for awarding grants, and the performance of programs that have received cash from the largely GOP-controlled commission.