- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

RICHMOND House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. held on to his job as Virginia's most powerful legislator, at least for the time being, after meeting last night with his Republican colleagues.

Fifty-seven members of the 65-member House Republican Caucus met for more than three hours in the Capitol to hear Mr. Wilkins' explanations about a $100,000 settlement he paid to a 26-year-old woman to keep claims he sexually harassed her out of court. The caucus, unsatisfied with the answers Mr. Wilkins gave, will meet again next Tuesday to consider their options.

"There are some issues that need to be addressed," said Delegate Leo Wardrup of Virginia Beach, the Republican Caucus chairman.

Mr. Wilkins, 65, of Amherst, addressed the media after the closed-door meeting and acknowledged he paid the settlement in November 2001, but he denied the accusations.

"I am sure I have done many things in my life that are improper, but I never forced anything on anybody at any time," said Mr. Wilkins, with his wife of 19 years at his side.

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 but kept his legislative office at the site, would not comment on the accusations or the reported payment, other than to deny them, the paper reported.

A second woman, Elizabeth Massie, 46, of Amherst, told a Lynchburg television station over the weekend that she also was subjected to unwanted advances from the speaker at a Christmas party last year.

When they meet next week, caucus members will consider a range of options, including taking no action or censuring Mr. Wilkins.

Many members said they expected more from the meeting.

"I am not satisfied with the statements of the speaker," said Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican. "I am not satisfied that he told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

Caucus members also said they looked forward to hearing more from Mr. Wilkins next week.

"I think I would have liked to have heard more," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican.

"We let the speaker know it's a serious situation," said Delegate Jeannemarie Devolites, Fairfax Republican.

The 3½-hour meeting was held in executive session, which bars the members from talking specifically about what was said inside.

Mr. Wardrup said many members wanted to make sure Mr. Wilkins had every opportunity to answer questions and offer explanations, and that the short notice of the meeting did not allow him to do so.

Monday night's meeting was arranged with just two days notice on Saturday.

"We owe a great deal to the speaker of the House," Mr. Wardrup said. "You just don't toss [all the good he has done] away I think its immoral and I lobbied against it."

But Mr. Wilkins said he did not know what else he could say to his colleagues next week to satisfy them.

He would not elaborate on why he made the $100,000 payment if the accusations were false, saying he was not going to let a personal situation endanger the success he has worked his whole life to achieve for the Republican Party.

"People tell me that denials are not enough. People also want to know why you settle out of court," he said. "People do that all the time for personal reasons to avoid the situation."

Many members said Mr. Wilkins did not fully understand the severity of the claims against him until meeting face to face with them last night.

Should Mr. Wilkins resign, House rules stipulate that Delegate Lacey E. Putney, Bedford independent and 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 100-member House by a two-thirds vote of the members. The legislature is in recess until January. It can be called back only by a two-thirds vote by members of both chambers or by Gov. Mark R. Warner.

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