Monday, June 28, 2004

RICHMOND — Republican lawmakers who think a lobbyist’s letter refusing their requests for campaign contributions smacks of bribery can take the matter to local prosecutors, the state’s Republican attorney general and a House Republican leader have said.

Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore’s office wrote in an opinion on Friday that commonwealth’s attorneys, not his office, should determine whether a hospital industry lobbyist’s refusal to give to legislators who opposed the state budget breaches bribery laws.

Yesterday, Delegate R. Steven Landes, the legislator who sought the opinion, wrote that Mr. Kilgore’s guidance “is clear that legislators who received these letters may wish to contact their local commonwealth’s attorney.”

The developments present the possibility that some legislators could instigate a criminal probe of a business lobbyist in the seething aftermath of a discordant 115-day legislative session that split the House’s dominant Republicans over a $1.4 billion tax increase.

Four delegates and two senators received letters from Katharine M. Webb, a lobbyist for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, denying their requests for campaign donations from the organization’s political action committee, HOSPAC.

In the letters, dated May 28, Miss Webb said the requests were rejected because the legislators failed to vote for a $60 billion, two-year budget that contained modest increases in state reimbursements to health care providers under Medicaid.

“We felt a responsibility to communicate with those legislators that our priorities and yours are different, that there’s nothing wrong with having different priorities, but don’t expect us to fund you,” Miss Webb said yesterday. “There’s nothing new in this whole situation, except that we put it in writing.”

The letter infuriated some legislators. Delegate John S. “Jack” Reid, Henrico County Republican, was so angry that he ripped the letter in two, then taped it back together and saved it after reasoning that Miss Webb might have violated bribery laws by linking campaign donations to specific votes.

Mr. Landes, Augusta County Republican, wrote Mr. Kilgore on June 10 voicing concern over the letter. Mr. Kilgore’s chief counsel, Christopher R. Nolen, replied Friday by citing key points of the state bribery law but concluded that the question was not one of law but of fact — a job for a commonwealth’s attorney, a grand jury or a court.

“In determining whether a particular individual committed a crime, the attorney general would be assuming the role of judge and jury. The law does not authorize the attorney general to perform such a function,” Mr. Nolen wrote.

Based on that, Mr. Landes said yesterday that it’s up to legislators who received the letters to decide whether to alert their local prosecutors or the commonwealth’s attorney in Henrico County, where HOSPAC is based.

“In my mind, it raised the question of whether there was, in fact, a connection between a contribution and a specific vote. I just think it’s bad policy for lobbying organizations or political action committees to tie contributions to specific votes,” Mr. Landes said.

One of the six legislators, Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, Prince William County Republican, said he won’t pursue the matter.

“I do think Katie crossed the line, but this incident serves a point. I think the General Assembly, on both sides of the aisle, has been pretty assiduous about keeping their hands clean. You have to be very careful about the tone you create when you communicate,” Mr. Lingamfelter said.

There was no reply yesterday afternoon to telephone messages left for three other delegates and two senators who received the letters.

Should anyone press the issue, it would deepen the estrangement between the House Republicans and their traditional allies in business, said Robert D. Holsworth, a political-science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of VCU’s Center for Public Policy.

“If we have the Republican caucus arrayed against the lobbying community, it would be further evidence that wounds from this session not only haven’t healed, they’re festering,” Mr. Holsworth said.

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