- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

RICHMOND — Delegate Fenton L. Bland Jr., the focus of a federal and state investigation into his business dealings, pleaded guilty yesterday to conspiracy to commit bank fraud.

Bland, Petersburg Democrat, also resigned the House of Delegates seat after entering his plea in U.S. District Court. He had held the seat since 2002.

Bland was released pending sentencing on April 29 and did not comment as he left the courthouse. He was absent from the House when it convened at noon.

His resignation letter was read by Delegate Kenneth C. Alexander, Norfolk Democrat, at the opening of the House session.

“There comes a time when personal responsibilities overshadow the work of the people. I’ve come to the conclusion that I must refocus my mission. With this in mind, effective Wednesday, January 26, 2005, I resign my seat,” Mr. Alexander said, reading from Bland’s letter.

House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, said he will allow Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, to set the date for a special election to fill Bland’s seat.

Bland, 42, faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine as part of the plea agreement.

According to court papers, Bland misrepresented his personal and business interests in various real estate properties to secure loans and lines of credit from Branch Banking and Trust Co. of Virginia and Consolidated Bank & Trust Co.

The properties belonged to a friend of the delegate named Philip Bland, who is not related, U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said at a press conference. The older man was “incapable of understanding his rights” when he fell prey to the delegate’s scheme, Mr. McNulty said.

Beginning in 1996, Fenton Bland forged signatures to take control of several of Philip Bland’s properties in Petersburg and Ettrick, Mr. McNulty said. The delegate then said he was the owner of the properties to secure $460,000 in credit with the banks, according to court papers.

Mr. McNulty would not comment on why Bland needed the credit. “The one thing that this case demonstrates quite well is that no one is above the law,” Mr. McNulty said.

In August, FBI agents and Virginia State Police investigators searched Bland’s two homes and his Richmond business, financially troubled A.D. Price Funeral Home.

Agents took laptop computers and box loads of evidence from Bland’s home in Petersburg, which he lists as his legal residence, a house he owns in Prince George County and his funeral home.

Bland’s attorney at the time said agents seized records related to a petition his client had filed late last year in federal bankruptcy court to restructure about $2.1 million in debt at the funeral home he purchased in 1996.

His resignation ends a political career that has been troubled since his election to the 63rd District in 2001.

Mr. Howell said he would not make the call on holding a special election to replace Bland because the legislature would be facing its Feb. 26 adjournment in the four weeks he estimated it would take to hold the election.

When the General Assembly is in session, the state constitution gives the House speaker the authority to call special elections when vacancies occur in the chamber.

State law does not mandate a minimum waiting period after a special election is called. State Board of Elections Secretary Jean Jensen said a 30-day turnaround is typical after a special election is called, but such elections have been accomplished in as little as 2 weeks.

Mr. Warner was traveling yesterday and had not spoken with Mr. Howell about the special election, said his press secretary, Ellen Qualls.

Bland’s resignation reduces the House’s Democratic minority to 37 seats but 36 active votes in the 100-member chamber. Delegate Marian Van Landingham of Alexandria is undergoing cancer treatment and unable to attend and cast votes. She will not seek re-election this fall, but has not given up her seat.

Associated Press writer Bob Lewis contributed to this report.

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