- The Washington Times - Monday, June 10, 2002

Virginia House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins will address Republican colleagues in an emergency meeting tonight in Richmond to plead for the job he has spent 24 years working to attain.
Republican members of the House of Delegates are slated to meet behind closed doors and listen as Mr. Wilkins, Amherst Republican, explains the circumstances surrounding two reported instances of sexual harassment that have come to light over the weekend. In one instance he reportedly paid at least $100,000 to a 26-year-old woman to keep the case out of court.
"The more these things come out, the harder it gets for him to stay," said Delegate Robert Marshall, Manassas Republican. "I still want to hear what he has to say but if he does not answer our questions satisfactorily, he can't remain as speaker."
"He is going to have to tell us the facts. Anyone with $35 can sue someone else," said Delegate David B. Albo, Springfield Republican, who was unaware of the scheduled meeting until questioned by a reporter. "If he admits to doing something really bad, then he's got problems. But if he says it was part of business and he just paid it, then we go from there."
The Washington Post first reported on Friday that Mr. Wilkins, 65, paid Jennifer Thompson, 26, between $100,000 and $250,000 to settle a complaint that he had made unwelcome sexual advances toward her last year. When Mrs. Thompson, then an employee of the Wilkins Construction Co., threatened legal action, the two signed a confidentiality agreement and settled out of court, The Post reported.
Mr. Wilkins, who sold the construction firm in 1991, would not comment on the accusations or the reported payment, other than to deny them, The Post reported.
Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, said the size of the payment gives him pause, yet he still wants to hear what the speaker has to say. "When you pay $100,000, it tends to lend some credibility to the charges," he said.
A second woman, Elizabeth Massie, 45, a native of Amherst, over the weekend told WSET-TV in Lynchburg that Mr. Wilkins had made unwanted advances toward her at a Christmas party in December, but she never filed charges.
"I felt very humiliated [and] embarrassed," Miss Massie said. "I ran for mayor here in Amherst four years ago, and I may run again. I did not want to come forward with this."
Republicans are upset not only with the accusations but also with how they have come to light. Several said they believed Mr. Wilkins was less than forthcoming when he initially began contacting lawmakers to give them a heads-up before the accusations were made public.
"He made it seem as though someone had made the allegations and this was something we would be dealing with prospectively," said Mr. Hamilton, whom Mr. Wilkins called Thursday. "I am a little disappointed in how it was presented."
Mr. Hamilton has been mentioned as a speaker candidate.
Mr. Wilkins began his legislative career in 1977. He was elected speaker in 2000, the same year the GOP gained control of the chamber.
While it is not clear what Mr. Wilkins will say tonight, some are comparing him with another Republican credited with raising the party's profile and power, only to be forced out before having the chance to fully enjoy the fruits of his labor.
"This is the same situation as [former U.S. House Speaker] Newt Gingrich's rise and fall," said John McGlennon, chairman of the government department at the College of William and Mary. "[Mr. Wilkins] more than anyone else led the party to unprecedented power and appears likely to not be able to stay and savor his successes."
Should Mr. Wilkins resign, House Rules stipulate that Delegate Lacey Putney, Bedford independent chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee would become interim speaker. Mr. Putney has served in the House for 40 years and caucuses with Republicans.
If Mr. Wilkins declines to step aside, he could be expelled from the House by a two-thirds vote of the members. The legislature is in recess until January, and can be called back only by a two-thirds vote by members of both chambers or by Gov. Mark R. Warner, Democrat.
A Warner spokeswoman said he had no comment about Mr. Wilkins.

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