- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

Virginia Delegate Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia Beach on Wednesday became the first person to officially announce his candidacy for statewide office in 2005, saying his top priority as attorney general would be protecting Virginia from terrorist threats.

Mr. McDonnell, 50, declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination at the state Capitol in Richmond, the first of 13 stops on a three-day statewide tour. He likely will be opposed in the June 14 Republican primary by Richmond lawyer Steve Baril, who is organizing a campaign and raising money, but has not officially announced his candidacy.

Incumbent Jerry W. Kilgore is the presumptive Republican nominee for governor in 2005.

In his appearance before about three dozen supporters, Mr. McDonnell contrasted his experience with that of his likely opponent, without mentioning Mr. Baril by name. Mr. Baril has been active in Republican politics, but has not held elective office.

“It is easy for candidates who have not been elected to office to engage in political rhetoric, to complain about what has not been accomplished, while making promises about what they are going to do,” Mr. McDonnell said. “But I believe voters will want to make sure there is actually a track record of results to go along with the rhetoric.”

Mr. McDonnell is a former state prosecutor who was elected to the House of Delegates in 1991, defeating 20-year Democratic incumbent Glenn B. McClanan. Mr. McDonnell has sponsored legislation reforming the welfare and juvenile-justice systems and toughening the state’s drunken-driving laws.

He is chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee.

mWarner on the road

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner said last week that his transportation initiative will emphasize public-private partnerships and greater reliance on rail and transit systems, but won’t include new taxes.

In broadly sketching a package that he will outline later this month, Mr. Warner suggested that he will base his modest program on one-time revenues and tax collections from a vibrant economy.

The state also will make greater progress retiring unpaid debt on long-completed highway projects.

“Greater use of rail and transit programs has to be part of any long-term transportation solution,” Mr. Warner said in a speech to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

He reiterated those comments later to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, said the state has made progress reducing its debt for existing and completed roads — from the $867 million he inherited from previous administrations to slightly more than $250 million today.

“Too many roads are completed and people are driving on them, but they have not yet been fully paid for, causing us again out-year obligations” on a budget that will become strained again by 2007, Mr. Warner said.

Spiraling costs of Medicaid — estimated to require an additional $1 billion in state support in the 2007-08 budget cycle — and other existing expenses would push spending close to the state’s expected revenue, despite a surplus forecast to be as high as $900 million by summer 2006.

Only by exercising extreme spending restraint now can the state meet its needs three to four years later without new revenues, the governor said.

“But this will be an election year, and some legislators will want to spend as fast as they can,” Mr. Warner said.

Even so, he said he would include no proposals for new taxes — including any increase in the gasoline tax — in the transportation package that he is expected to outline after Thanksgiving.

In comments after the speech, however, Mr. Warner would not say whether he would veto any new taxes for transportation if the General Assembly approved them.

mAppearances count

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. collected $100,000 for his re-election campaign at a private fund-raiser held by a business partner of construction company owner Willard J. Hackerman this month, at the same time that the governor’s aides were contemplating the sale of state preservation land to Mr. Hackerman at a below-market price, the Baltimore Sun reported Tuesday.

Mr. Ehrlich raised the money Nov. 4 at the Owings Mills home of Howard S. Brown, a developer and president of David S. Brown Enterprises. Mr. Brown and Mr. Hackerman’s Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. are partners in a project to build a $220 million town center at an Owings Mills Metro station parking lot that would include a library and university building.

Four days after the fund-raiser, Mr. Hackerman bowed to criticism and abandoned his plan to purchase the 836-acre forest in Southern Maryland for the same price paid by the state. Mr. Hackerman stood to gain up to $7 million in federal and state tax breaks if he preserved the land, but according to documents released last week, he intended to build homes with a water view there.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Roy Dyson, Southern Maryland Democrat, asked state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. for an investigation “to see if there was any criminal misconduct” involved in the proposed St. Mary’s County transaction.

“I believe it is up to the Attorney General’s Office to investigate this matter,” Mr. Dyson said in a letter obtained by the Sun.

Some observers say the appearance of Mr. Ehrlich at the fund-raiser illustrates the unsavory role of money in politics and state affairs.

“I would say that sends a message that if you help raise money for the governor, you may get special treatment,” said James Browning, executive director of the campaign-finance watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland.

mOperation Coon Dog

The top elected official in Buchanan County, Va., pleaded guilty in federal court Nov. 15 to participating in a bribery scheme in which contractors won construction contracts by slipping officials cash and gifts, including coon dogs.

The bribes totaled $545,000; the contracts were worth $7.6 million.

Before going to court, James “Pete” Stiltner Jr., 51, used a letter to tender his resignation as chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bondurant Jr. said Stiltner described his relationship with one bribe-paying contractor this way: “He owned me.”

After an investigation dubbed Operation Coon Dog, prosecutors charged 16 men with taking part in the scheme. Stiltner was the fifth to plead guilty.

Mr. Bondurant said bribes began exchanging hands between contractors and Buchanan officials shortly after a flood caused nearly $30 million in damage to the county in May 2002. Nine contractors won up to $7.6 million in cleanup contracts by paying bribes to some county officials, according to a grand jury indictment.

Stiltner pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Abingdon to racketeering, program fraud and money laundering. Mr. Bondurant said the bribes that Stiltner accepted included a 60-inch television set, $10,000 in cash, a suit, shirts and shoes. One of the contractors also gave Stiltner a $30,000 bribe by buying a $20,000 piece of land for $50,000.

Sentencing for Stiltner is set for April. He faces 110 years in prison and a fine of $2.5 million.

Besides the nine contractors, those charged with taking part in the scheme include six county officials and one employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

• This column is based in part on wire service reports.

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