- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

RICHMOND S. Vance Wilkins Jr., largely credited with giving the Republican Party control of the House of Delegates, resigned as House speaker yesterday in the wake of a sexual-harassment scandal.
"I might have been able to hold on certainly until January 2003 but I think it is in the best interest of the caucus, for which I have worked so long, and for myself that I resign as speaker now," Mr. Wilkins said in a 40-minute teleconference call with reporters.
Mr. Wilkins, Amherst Republican, was the first Republican speaker, and has served in the House for 24 years.
Under House rules, Delegate Lacey E. Putney, Bedford independent and chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, becomes interim speaker. Mr. Putney has served in the House for 40 years and is the longest-serving member of the legislature. A permanent speaker can be selected only by the full 100-member House.
"This creates a vacuum of power in Richmond, and Governor [Mark R.] Warner and others will try to fill," said John McGlennon, chairman of the government department at the College of William and Mary.
"But this will also provide influence for some people who did not have much influence before … and test the ability of the freshman and the more conservative wings of the party to hold on," he said.
Mr. Wilkins came under increasing pressure from Republicans to resign after The Washington Post reported last Friday that the speaker had paid a 26-year-old woman $100,000 to keep a sexual-harassment case out of court. Mr. Wilkins has denied any wrongdoing but acknowledged paying the $100,000.
During the weekend, a second woman told a Lynchburg television station and the Associated Press that Mr. Wilkins made unwanted sexual advances toward her.
"I don't blame anyone for my troubles," Mr. Wilkins, 65, said yesterday. "Most of them I brought upon myself. But times have changed, and the rules have changed, and what was accepted in the era in which I was raised is strictly off-limits today. I didn't change with the times, and if I have offended anyone I am truly sorry, and I apologize."
Mr. Wilkins said he had not decided whether he would give up his General Assembly seat. "I haven't even gotten that far," he said.
Mr. Wilkins had been resisting calls for him to resign since the accusations first surfaced last week. He said he came to this decision after talking with members of the caucus.
"I think this was the right thing for him to do," said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican. "I want him to be remembered as the man who led the modern-day Republican party to success, and I think this helps that."
Mr. Warner accepted Mr. Wilkins' resignation and said the speaker was owed a debt of gratitude.
"Mr. Wilkins deserves to be remembered for his service to the House of Delegates and the Commonwealth, and not simply for the circumstances that led to his resignation," Mr. Warner, a Democrat, said in a brief statement.
Mr. Wilkins met with most of the 65-member House Republican Caucus behind closed doors Monday night to discuss the sexual-harassment scandal. A follow-up meeting had been scheduled for Tuesday, after many left Monday's meeting disappointed with Mr. Wilkins' explanations.
During yesterday's teleconference, Mr. Wilkins said he was surprised at how quickly the members of the House of Delegates turned on him and said that led, in part, to his decision to resign.
"I am not sure I want to be a leader of a group of people that panic that quickly," Mr. Wilkins said.
Jeannemarie Devolites, Fairfax Republican and House majority whip, disputed Mr. Wilkins' claim.
"I think that we found out very suddenly about allegations he'd known about for months," she said. "If we'd jumped too quickly, we would have made a decision [Monday night] when we met.
"I hardly think that classifies as jumping too quickly. We acted in a very thoughtful manner."
Mr. Wilkins added that most of the pressure for him to step down came from the leadership group, which includes Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith of Salem, Mrs. Devolites of Fairfax and caucus chairman Leo C. Wardrup of Virginia Beach.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Jerry Kilgore became the highest-ranking Republican to call for his resignation. Mr. Kilgore cited reports that Mr. Wilkins had been threatening members of his caucus to keep him on, which Mr. Wilkins denied yesterday.
Last night, Mr. Kilgore had praise for Mr. Wilkins' years of service.
"I am saddened that his tenure as speaker has to end under these circumstances, but I am confident that when history records the accomplishments of the past 25 years, Vance Wilkins will stand as one of Virginia's most important and visionary figures," Mr. Kilgore said in a written statement.
Mr. Wilkins thanked his supporters and family and called the decision to step down difficult. He said many people, including his wife, Lee, urged him against it.
"So many people urged me to [fight on]. I just hate to let them down," he said.


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