FBI Probes Virginia State Senator Phil Puckett's Resignation

The FBI is investigating the circumstances of former Democratic state Sen. Phil Puckett's departure from the General Assembly, according to a person with direct knowledge of the probe and a state official.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch first reported the federal investigation into Puckett's resignation, a move that gave control of the state Senate to Republicans and dealt a serious setback to Gov. Terry McAuliffe's push to expand Medicaid eligibility.

When he resigned, Puckett was under consideration for a high-level job with the GOP-controlled Virginia tobacco commission. Some Democrats accused Puckett of making a back-room deal with Republicans, which Puckett and GOP lawmakers have strongly denied.

A state official familiar with the probe also confirmed the investigation. Both people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the investigation.

Republican Del. Terry Kilgore, who is the chairman of the tobacco commission, said he had not spoken with federal law enforcement officials. Kilgore had previously said he had discussed with Puckett a deputy director job at the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission prior to Puckett's resignation. The commission uses bond money from Virginia's share of the $206 billion national settlement against the tobacco industry to help spur economic growth in southwest and Southside Virginia.

Kilgore has hired a former federal prosecutor, attorney Thomas T. Cullen, to represent him. Cullen said Kilgore is willing to meet with federal investigators.

"Terry has done absolutely nothing wrong and has absolutely nothing to hide,'' Cullen said.

Following the uproar over his resignation, Puckett withdrew his name for the commission job.

Puckett did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. In a statement announcing his resignation, Puckett said he was resigning so that his daughter, Martha Ketron, could be approved as a state judge.

Republicans in the Senate had blocked Ketron's appointment to serve as a juvenile and domestic relations judge in southwest Virginia earlier this year because of a policy of not appointing immediate family members to judgeships. Ketron had been temporarily appointed by circuit court judges and is now working as a substitute judge.

After Puckett's resignation, Republican lawmakers were able to pass a state budget that did not include Medicaid expansion, something McAuliffe and Democrats have pushed for. McAuliffe, who has yet to signal whether he will sign, veto or try to amend the budget, has called Puckett's resignation a "game changer.''

Brian P. McGinn, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, declined to comment.

Ned Stephenson, deputy director of the tobacco commission, said he'd ``been forbidden'' to speak with reporters.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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