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Feds: No charges in Puckett resignation

(AP) The sudden resignation of a Democratic state senator whose decision to quit prompted potential job offers from powerful officials in both parties will not lead to any criminal charges, a federal prosecutor said Friday.

U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Timothy J. Heaphy sent a letter to various interested parties Friday saying his office was closing its investigation into former Sen. Phil Puckett. His departure in June gave Republicans control of the Senate and all but scuttled Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s goal of expanding Medicaid, his top legislative priority.

The FBI and federal prosecutors began investigating the circumstances surrounding Puckett’s resignation soon after he resigned.

“After reviewing facts gathered during the investigation, considering potentially applicable statutes, and consulting with the Public Integrity Section at the Department of Justice, we have decided not to pursue federal criminal charges for acts surrounding Senator Puckett’s resignation,” Heaphy said.

Puckett was in line for a potential high-level job at the GOP-controlled tobacco commission at the time of his resignation, though he later withdrew his name from consideration. Internal commission emails show that commission chairman, Republican Del. Terry Kilgore, was behind the potential job offer and that commission staff were concerned about the timing of the offer. Kilgore’s lawyer, Thomas Cullen, said his client is “thrilled that he could help” investigators reach their conclusion that criminal charges weren’t warranted.

After his resignation, Puckett said he was resigning in part so that his daughter could be approved as a state judge. Republicans in the Senate had blocked his daughter’s appointment to serve as a juvenile and domestic relations judge in southwest Virginia earlier this year because of a policy of not appointing lawmakers’ immediate relatives to judgeships.

The loss of a Democratically controlled state Senate severely diminished McAuliffe’s leverage in battling state Republicans over whether to expand the publicly funded health insurance Medicaid program to low-income adults. Word that Puckett was about to quit set off a mad scramble by some of the state’s top Democratic officials to try to talk him out of it.

McAuliffe’s chief of staff, Paul Reagan, floated potential job offers as heads of state agencies for Puckett’s daughter.

“So we would be very eager to accommodate her, if, if that would be helpful in keeping you in the Senate. We, we would basically do anything,” Reagan said in a voicemail to Puckett.

Reagan apologized for his comments after they were first reported by The Washington Post.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner also said he “brainstormed” potential job opportunities — including a federal judgeship — for Puckett’s daughter in a conversation with Puckett’s son. Warner said he never made any job offers and did nothing wrong.

Puckett’s lawyer, Thomas Bondurant Jr., issued a statement Friday saying Puckett was pleased to be in the clear.

“It’s a shame that Senator Puckett had to go through months of what amounted to torture during this investigation, when it was clear to us from day one, based upon the facts and the law, that no crime was committed,” Bondurant said.

— ALAN SUDERMAN, Associated Press

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