- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Republican Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell is blocking the appointments of three recently resigned Democratic state lawmakers who took new jobs in state government.

Howell’s office announced Monday that the speaker won’t allow the House of Delegates to confirm the appointments by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe until he’s given guidance by federal prosecutors on whether they are legal.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Howell said he was motivated to seek guidance because of the federal investigation into former Democratic Sen. Phil Puckett. A possible job offer to Puckett by the GOP-controlled Virginia tobacco commission at the time of his resignation in June is the subject of an FBI investigation.

In his letter, which was also sent to U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Timothy J. Heaphy, Howell said that McAuliffe may have appointed former Delegates Algie Howell and Bob Brink and Sen. Henry Marsh to state jobs partly out of “political” considerations.

“Although I have no doubt that this longstanding practice is legal and appropriate, I am concerned that you may have a different view based on a novel extension of federal public corruption law,” Howell wrote. Moreover, I am deeply troubled by what appears to be an attempt by this U.S. attorney’s office to criminalize what, to date, has been legitimate state political activity.”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment.

Brian Coy, a spokesman for McAuliffe, dismissed Howell’s letter as a stunt.

“The speaker’s desire to deflect attention away from an ongoing scandal involving a member of his own caucus is understandable, but using qualified appointees as political pawns is the wrong approach,” Coy said.

Republican Del. Terry Kilgore, who is also chairman of the tobacco commission, appeared to be the driving force behind the potential job offer to Puckett, according to internal commission emails.

Puckett withdrew his interest in the commission job following a public outcry over his resignation, which flipped partisan control of the state Senate and helped state Republicans defeat McAuliffe over a proposal to expand Medicaid eligibility. Puckett and Kilgore have both denied any wrongdoing.

Several Republican lawmakers have been critical of the federal investigation. U.S. Rep. H. Morgan Griffith sent a letter to Holder in July saying Griffith “can draw no other conclusion that this is a politically motivated investigation.”

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