- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

RICHMOND Delegate S. Vance Wilkins Jr., who resigned in June as House speaker amid reports of sexual misconduct, said yesterday he will also relinquish the legislative seat he has held for 25 years.

Mr. Wilkins announced his intent to retire effective Aug. 15, three days after he turns 66, in an open letter to constituents of his rural district.

It came nearly a month after he resigned as speaker and admitted that he had paid $100,000 of his own money to hush a 26-year-old woman's charges that he groped her last summer in an office in his hometown of Amherst.

"This has been a very difficult decision; made more difficult by the many calls and letters I have received urging me to hold my seat. Even though serving the commonwealth has been my focus and my life for over a quarter century, there is life for me after the General Assembly," Mr. Wilkins wrote.

"There comes a time to move on, and now is that time," the letter says.

Mr. Wilkins was traveling abroad and could not be reached for comment, said his spokeswoman, Julie Rautio.

Mr. Wilkins said he chose the mid-August date so Gov. Mark R. Warner can schedule an election to fill his seat to coincide with the Nov. 5 general election, sparing taxpayers the cost of a special election.

Mr. Wilkins was the first speaker in Virginia history to resign from the post under pressure.

House Republicans plan to gather Saturday in Richmond to nominate a new speaker.

Delegate William J. Howell of Stafford County is unopposed for the majority party's nomination, which assures his formal election as speaker by the full House when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Delegate Lacey E. Putney, a conservative independent from Bedford, is the interim speaker.

Mr. Wilkins entered the General Assembly in 1978, when Republicans held only a handful of the 100 House seats. He tirelessly recruited and mentored Republicans statewide to seek House seats and raised money for their campaigns.

He became speaker after the GOP took a slim majority for the first time in history in the 1999 legislative election. He saw the Republican caucus, counting Mr. Putney, expand last year to 65 seats.

Yesterday, however, senior House Republicans debated whether Mr. Wilkins is obligated to turn over about $170,000 from the Dominion Leadership Fund, a political action committee he created and controlled to help elect Republicans to the House.

"Contributions to the Dominion Leadership Fund were made in good faith under the promise that they would be used to help Republican candidates win their elections. I believe that Vance, in soliciting those dollars, was a man of integrity, and that he will do the right thing," said House Republican Whip Jeannemarie Devolites of Fairfax.

Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison, Prince William County Republican, agreed that the fund, made up of donations from corporations, individuals and House Republicans, was built to fund Republican House races, but said Mr. Wilkins made the fund possible and should use the balance as he deems fit.

The Washington Post yesterday cited unidentified sources as saying Mr. Wilkins intended to give the money to his staff, including about $150,000 to his former chief of staff, Claudia D. Tucker.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Miss Tucker vigorously denied the report. She said Mr. Wilkins would not use DLF money to pay staff, and she said she would not accept such money from him.

"I had a 10-year contract with Vance. After he stepped down as speaker, he discussed with me his feeling that the 10 years won't play out now, and he said he wished there was some way he could pay me, but I can say for certain that it would not involve the Dominion Leadership Fund," Miss Tucker said.

In April, Mr. Wilkins put Miss Tucker on paid leave from her $72,000-a-year state job after her cellular telephone number was found on a roster of numbers that logged in to what was supposed to have been a private Democratic Party conference call in late March.

A state investigation into reputed Republican wiretapping of Democratic calls had already resulted in felony indictments against the state party's former executive director. The implication that the speaker's office was involved brought federal investigators into the criminal probe.

Miss Tucker insisted she had committed no wrongdoing.

She resigned from her job after Mr. Wilkins resigned as speaker. Last week, Mr. Putney hired her as his chief of staff until January.

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