- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

Two Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly have called for a legislative investigation into Gov. James Gilmore III's $50,000 payout to Linda Byrd-Harden, the former head of the state's minority business agency.

Mrs. Byrd-Harden, who resigned as director of the state's Department of Minority Business Enterprise less than two weeks ago, is the subject of a police investigation into allegations of financial impropriety at the agency.

State Sen. Emily Couric of Charlottesville and Delegate Jerrauld C. Jones of Norfolk have asked for a public hearing into Mr. Gilmore's decision to award the unusual severance package to Mrs. Byrd-Harden.

Mrs. Byrd-Harden, a former state director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), left her post Aug. 18, three weeks after the Virginia State Police began an investigation into financial operations at the small state agency that has 21 employees and a $2 million budget. The investigation is ongoing.

The compensation package in question includes a $20,000 severance payment and a $30,000 consultation fee for Mrs. Byrd-Harden to assist the agency's new director, Allegra F. McCullough, during the next three months of transition, Mr. Gilmore's office said yesterday.

Usually, departing gubernatorial officials receive one month's pay. Mrs. Byrd-Harden earned about $90,000 a year before her resignation.

Mrs. Couric and Mr. Jones yesterday called Mrs. Byrd-Harden's severance package an "unorthodox" use of taxpayer funds.

"We find it extraordinarily difficult to believe that the governor would recommend using taxpayer dollars to pay a dismissed employee whose leadership is under investigation by a law enforcement agency," they wrote to two state committees in an Aug. 25 request for an investigation.

Mr. Gilmore's office defended the Republican governor's decision to approve the package and called a possible investigation into the severance package "unwarranted."

"It's in the governor's discretion to give [the severance package]," said Lila White, a spokeswoman for the governor. "These things are done on a case-by-case basis."

As for the request for an investigation, "it appears to be political grandstanding on their part," said Mark Miner, Mr. Gilmore's press secretary.

However, Mrs. Couric and Mr. Jones said the taxpayers have the right to know why their money should be given to a former state official who left under a cloud.

"This is not a partisan issue," Mrs. Couric said. "These events raise serious questions about honesty and integrity in state government, regardless of political party."

Some Republicans disagreed. They argue the Democrats are asking for an investigation because they never forgave Mrs. Byrd-Harden for leaving the NAACP and joining the current Republican administration.

"It's sour grapes on their part," said Ed Matricardi, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. "The Democrats seem to be going after [Mrs.] Byrd-Harden with special gusto because they feel that she betrayed them [when she left the NAACP]. In their opinion, she was a traitor."

Mrs. Byrd-Harden's resignation came two years after Mr. Gilmore named her to head the agency, whose mission is to help minority businesses to win state contracts.

The appointment stunned Democrats because Mrs. Byrd-Harden had been an outspoken nemesis of the Republicans, repeatedly berating them on issues ranging from juvenile-justice reform to Confederate History and Heritage Month proclamations.

In 1996, Mrs. Byrd-Harden criticized former Gov. George F. Allen's juvenile-justice reform plan as too punitive for children. Mr. Gilmore, then state attorney general, supported the plan by his Republican predecessor as governor.

The next year, Mrs. Byrd-Harden called for Mr. Allen's resignation for issuing a Confederate History and Heritage Month proclamation that saluted the "four-year struggle for independence and sovereign rights." And during 1997 race for governor, Mrs. Byrd-Harden chided Mr. Gilmore for refusing to debate then-gubernatorial candidate Donald S. Beyer Jr., a Democrat, at the NAACP convention.

Yesterday, Northern Virginia Democrats and Republicans criticized the severance package, agreeing the governor should wait at least until the investigation is complete before paying the sum.

"I don't care if she did resign," said Delegate Vincent Callahan, Fairfax Republican. "If she's being investigated, she shouldn't get paid."

"Fifty thousand dollars? Get real," said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, a Fairfax Democrat. "They have no business paying that kind of money, and the governor had no business doing this."

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