- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

Virginia Republicans expressed surprise yesterday over a published report that House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. paid $100,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim against him, but most said it was too early to speculate about his political future.
"Certainly everyone's anxious to find out what the truth is. All the caucus members have serious concerns about this, I'm sure, but it's too early to make any judgments about this," House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith told the Associated Press yesterday.
The Washington Post first reported yesterday that Mr. Wilkins, 65, reached an out-of-court settlement with Jennifer L. Thompson, 26, a former clerical worker at Wilkins Construction Co. The story cited unidentified sources as saying Miss Thompson accused the speaker of making the advances last summer at the company's headquarters just outside Amherst.
Mr. Wilkins, who has been in the General Assembly for 24 years, sold the company in 1991 but kept his legislative office in the same complex. He has since moved the office out of the building as part of the settlement, according to the report.
Yesterday, Mr. Wilkins denied the accusation and declined to comment, saying it was a private matter. The agreement included a confidentiality agreement barring Mr. Wilkins or Mrs. Thompson from discussing its terms, according to The Post.
Some Republican leaders said it would galvanize the rank-and-file members of the party.
"Any time you have to deal with difficult issues, it takes time away from when you deal with other issues but we will emerge stronger; the party faithful will come out and support us," said Gary Thomson, chairman of the Virginia Republican Party.
Mr. Griffith said members of the House Republican Caucus, which chooses the speaker, were concerned about the newspaper article.
As second-in-command, Mr. Griffith, Salem Republican, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Mr. Wilkins should the speaker step aside. Mr. Griffith said he has not lobbied the caucus for the job but that he would be interested.
"Any delegate would be interested in being speaker, but with all the good things that Vance has done for the commonwealth for all these years, we have to withhold judgment until we know all the facts," Mr. Griffith said.
Delegate Winsome Sears, Norfolk Republican, called the charge "reprehensible" and said that if it's true, Mr. Wilkins should resign.
John McGlennon, chairman of the Government Department at the College of William and Mary, said that this won't affect the health of the Republican Party in Virginia, but that it is damaging to Mr. Wilkins, who is often credited with the GOP's rise.
"As far as his leadership, it is another chink in the armor," Mr. McGlennon said. "He has faced a difficult year, even though he has achieved his lifelong political goal of having Republicans in the majority."
In March, authorities found that a cellular telephone belonging to Mr. Wilkins' chief of staff, Claudia D. Tucker, had logged into a private Democratic Party conference call. That discovery is part of a federal criminal investigation.
Mr. Thomson said he expects Democrats to make an issue out of this latest scandal involving the state's most powerful legislator.
"That happens every day on every issue. I would not expect them to do anything else," he said.
This article is based in part on wire reports.

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