Virginia officials must decide whether a new state law jeopardizes Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder‘s political future after his son pleaded guilty yesterday to mishandling his father’s campaign funds in the late 1980s.
Mr. Wilder — who became governor in 1990 and came out of retirement to become Richmond’s mayor in 2005 — stopped filing campaign-finance reports in 1999 on funds left over from his successful gubernatorial bid in 1989.
A law that went into effect last year states that no one can qualify for office if they have failed to file any campaign-finance reports, pay fines for late filings or return leftover contributions thatmay be required.
It reads: “No officer authorized by the laws of this Commonwealth to issue certificates of election shall issue one to any person determined to be elected to any such office, until copies of the reports cited have been filed as required in this [law].”
Yesterday, Mr. Wilder’s son Lawrence Wilder Jr., 45, who was the campaign treasurer when his father was elected the nation’s first black governor in 1989, agreed to plead guilty to two criminal charges for mishandling more than $170,000 from his father’s successful 1989 gubernatorial bid.
Richmond Circuit Judge Walter W. Stout III sentenced him to a 12-month suspended sentence on each charge. He also fined him $2,500 on each count and suspended $2,000 on each count.
When L. Douglas Wilder was elected in 2004 as Richmond’s first elected mayor in 60 years, the law applied only to candidates for statewide office. In 2006, the law was broadened to include all candidates running for local offices.
Now, the attorney general’s office and the state board of elections are expected to meet to determine whether the 2006 law applies to Mr. Wilder’s political future, state officials said yesterday, and whether his son’s plea closes the outstanding account.
Mr. Wilder’s office refused to comment on his son’s plea yesterday.
The 76-year-old mayor has suggested he might seek re-election in 2008.
When asked yesterday how the son’s plea affected whether Mr. Wilder could seek re-election, Chris Piper, an administrator of the Virginia State Board of Elections Campaign Finance division, said in an e-mail, “I can’t comment quite yet.”
The Board of Elections is made up of three persons: Chairman Jean W. Cunningham, Vice Chairman Harold Y. Pyon and Acting Secretary Valarie Jones. All three were appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat.
Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, could not be reached yesterday, and his office declined to comment on the case.
As to whether the charismatic mayor plans to run again, Mr. Wilder‘s spokesman, Linwood Norman, said, “He is holding the cards very tight to his vest.”
Questions about the “Wilder for Governor” 1989 campaign committee surfaced after the state board of elections discovered through an internal audit of campaign reports in 2005 that Mr. Wilder’s committee had failed to file a campaign report since Jan. 15, 1999.
The board found the report, filed by Lawrence Wilder, showed the committee had a $172,571 account balance.
The mayor’s longtime adviser Paul Goldman, who replaced Lawrence Wilder as committee treasurer in 2005, told the board he was unable to recover bank records and that the account balance had somehow dropped to about $3,000.
“In terms of the monies reported in the January 15, 1999, report but not in the account as of today … all this money went to Mr. Larry Wilder,” Mr. Goldman responded in a June 22, 2005, letter to the board. “Bottom line: No records relative to the actual disbursement of this money have been located.”
In response, the state board of elections referred the case in late September 2005 to the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
This is not the first time Lawrence Wilder, who won a special election and served as a state delegate from 1992 to 1993, has been the focus of a criminal case.
In 2000, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of cocaine possession, admitting he fought drug addiction from 1992 to 1999.
As part of a plea agreement, he served three years’ probation and was ordered to pay $1,000 and perform 250 hours of community service.
He also was scrutinized for the handling of $1.8 million raised in a separate account for his father’s inaugural ball in 1990.
A loophole in state law at the time allowed him not to disclose how nearly $1 million left over was spent.
In 1999, the Internal Revenue Service, which said L. Douglas Wilder owed taxes on the money, reached an undisclosed settlement with him.
Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring, a Democrat and Richmond native, inherited the “Wilder for Governor” case in 2006 after he was elected to office.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney J. Christopher Bullard completed an internal review this past spring, based on campaign-finance reports filed with the state elections board and Justice Department records tied to Lawrence Wilder’s handling of the 1989 inaugural fund.
The internal review was then forwarded to an independent prosecutor, who returned his findings to Mr. Herring’s office this month.
Before yesterday, Mr. Herring said his office had been talking with Lawrence Wilder’s attorney “to see if there is a way to resolve it” through a plea bargain or “more likely the matter will be referred out to an independent prosecutor to make a decision of whether to charge [Larry Wilder] criminally.”