House Minority Leader David J. Toscano called for an investigation Thursday into whether former state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett’s recent resignation was tied to job offers with Virginia’s tobacco commission.
Toscano said he asked the state inspector general to see if Puckett had a quid pro quo deal with the commission, which is responsible for $1 billion worth of projects in Southwest and Southside Virginia and the subject of multiple state investigations.
“It is time to bring some transparency to the deliberations of the Tobacco Commission,” Toscano said. “We do not know precisely what happened but there are enough questions to convene a formal inquiry.”
Puckett, a Russell County Democrat working inside the commission’s territory, sent shockwaves through the General Assembly over the weekend when he abruptly stepped down after 16 years in office. The resignation gave Republicans a 20-19 majority in the previously Democrat-controlled chamber and effectively ended a stalemate over the state budget and whether it would include Medicaid expansion.
Puckett could not be reached at home for comment.
Following the resignation, he immediately pointed to his daughter’s future as a judge as a main reason for the decision. Her quest to be a juvenile court judge in Southwest Virginia had been stymied by Senate Republicans, who opposed giving judicial appointments to family members of sitting legislators.
But revelations soon surfaced of a high-level job waiting with the commission – chaired by Gate City Republican Del. Terry G. Kilgore.
“I have never been officially offered a job with the Tobacco Commission,” Puckett told reporters.
Officially called the Virginia Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, the tobacco panel is tasked with overseeing the $4.1 billion Virginia won in a federal lawsuit against the nation’s four largest cigarette companies.
Its money has funded college scholarships and spurred such projects as museums, a shopping center and a coal company’s multimillion-dollar headquarters.
Kilgore could not be reached for comment.
The tobacco panel also has been investigated by a Blue Ribbon Commission headed by former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles in 2008, the General Assembly’s auditing arm in 2011 and by the inspector general’s office in January.
Findings noted that grants often went to pet projects that could not be measured for effectiveness. The inspector general turned up two instances where commission members voted to award money despite conflicts of interests.
“The Commission appears to be operating as its own Appropriations Committee, often making grants without strict consideration of return on investment and with an apparent lack of transparency,” Toscano said in a news release late Thursday.
Attorney General Mark Herring has said he sees no “investigative role” for his office.