- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Virginia House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. yesterday put his chief of staff, Claudia Tucker, on a paid leave of absence amid the investigation into accusations that Republicans listened in on Democratic conference calls.
"It is an unfortunate reality that the political situation surrounding the eavesdropping investigation is hampering her ability to address potential legal issues and is also distracting attention away from the daily business of the office. By granting Claudia leave, it is my hope we can separate the politics from the law," Mr. Wilkins said in a statement yesterday.
Mrs. Tucker's cell phone number appeared on a master list of participants to Democratic conference calls last month. She has hired former Attorney General Anthony Troy as her attorney and on Sunday requested the leave from Mr. Wilkins.
Mr. Wilkins said in a follow-up telephone interview that he was surprised Mrs. Tucker's name appeared on the list. He did not have a timetable for Mrs. Tucker's return, only that he hoped the leave of absence was temporary. She will continue receiving her $72,275 salary.
Mrs. Tucker's leave of absence comes after several days of intense scrutiny. Privately, some lawmakers had questioned whether she should remain on Mr. Wilkins' staff. Political observers in Richmond have also questioned what affect this would have on Mr. Wilkins' position.
"Other than the fact that she was a really good worker, [this will not [JUMP]affect my job]," said Mr. Wilkins, Amherst Republican. When asked whether he was concerned he might lose the speakership, he replied, "That's absurd."
Mr. Wilkins, a 24-year veteran of the House of Delegates, became speaker in 2000 when the Republicans gained control of the chamber.
The eavesdropping scandal has dogged Virginia Republicans for several weeks. Edmund A. Matricardi III was forced to step down as executive director of the Virginia Republican Party April 9 after he was indicted on charges that he called in and tape-recorded the conversations between high-level Democrats, including Gov. Mark R. Warner.
Last week, a Richmond Circuit Court judge denied Mr. Matricardi's motion to dismiss the charges, but a hearing on another motion is set for May 14.
Two dozen Democratic lawmakers and aides were initially believed to have taken part in the conference calls, which took place on March 22 and March 25. Recent reports indicate many more likely took part, including other Republican officials.
Late last Thursday, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, notified the state's attorney general that Mr. Griffith's press secretary, Jeff Ryer, may have heard the conversations or seen the transcripts, Republican sources said.
Timothy Murtaugh, spokesman for Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, acknowledged the Attorney General's Office received a fax from Mr. Griffith on Thursday night, but he would not comment on its contents because of the ongoing investigation.
State Democrats are watching the situation closely.
"At this point, I don't know what could surprise me, but at the same time, I continue to be surprised," said Mary Broz, deputy executive director for communications for the Democratic Party of Virginia. "We'll just have to wait and see how this goes. I would guess there are more surprises in store."
Many observers have speculated how this will affect the state GOP, but Mr. Wilkins said the party's leadership remains strong.
"Nothing like this is ever good, and [the investigation] is not something we are looking forward to," he said. "I think [the scandal] has nothing to do with our ability. If we do a good job, we will be fine. This is just a few individuals it's our performance in leading that really matters."

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