Senator Puckett and daughter: ‘Anything for my little girl…even screwing over my constituents…’
Virginia Republicans are preparing for a show-down with Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe over the state budget and the expansion of Medicare to handle uninsured Virginians under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately for them, Democrats hold the majority in the state Senate, or did, until some smoke-filled room maneuvering persuaded a conflicted Democratic state senator to resign, giving the GOP control of the chamber, at least for a while. Democratic Sen. Phillip P. Puckett ’s unexpected departure gives Republicans a 20-to-19 majority.
The Washington Post reported that Puckett (D-Russell) will announce his resignation from the Virginia Senate, effective immediately, paving the way for his daughter to continue as a district judge and for Puckett to take the job of deputy director of the state tobacco commission. Rationalizations for the move are flying, particularly as it affects Puckett’s daughter. Martha Puckett Ketron is already a Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judge. Circuit Court judges in Southwestern Virginia gave her a temporary appointment last year while the General Assembly, which approves judicial appointments for the state, was in recess. The Virginia House of Delegates approved her appointment to a six-year term when it reconvened earlier this year, but the Senate rejected the appointment because of its standing policy against appointing the relatives of active legislators to the bench. (It’s a good policy.) Thus, you see, Daddy’s resignation directly benefits his little girl, though it stabs his party and his constituents right in their backs.
This is known as a conflict of interest. The soon-to-be ex-senator needs to bone up on the concept and its ramifications.The ethical way to handle this conflict would be for Puckett to refuse to do anything to influence the resolution of his daughter’s appointment whatsoever.
“It [that is, the resignation] should pave the way for his daughter,” said Republican Delegate Terry Kilgore, who sure looks like the architect of this smelly deal. “She’s a good judge. . . . I would say that he wanted to make sure his daughter kept her judgeship. A father’s going do that.”
Not if he’s ethical, he won’t. The spin Republicans are putting on this is that Puckett is resigning for his daughter, and after that decision was made, Kilgore, who serves as the chairman of the state tobacco commission, offered him the post of deputy director. Not as a quid pro quo, mind you. Because he was qualified for the job.
Even if this was the actual sequence, and I doubt it, it has the appearance of impropriety and undermines public trust. That makes it the kind of transaction legislators are bound to avoid. The Huffington Post’s headline on the story is “GOP Straight Up Bribes Democratic Senator In Effort To Block Obamacare,” which is stating one interpretation of an ambiguous sequence of events as fact….lousy and unethical journalism, but as I said, this is the Huffington Post.
It could be that Puckett, on his own or even at the behest of his daughter, resigned so he could stay a judge, and then, realizing that Republicans would benefit and that he would be a pariah in his own party, negotiated the deal that got him his new job. It could also be that the Republicans, seeking a Senate majority, cooked this up, offered Puckett a package he couldn’t refuse (because he’s a corrupt and disloyal public servant), and thus it really was a quid pro quo deal. Note that Huffpo, biased as it is, frames this so the GOP is the villain.
This is not technically bribery, which is a crime. This is slimy, nauseating politics, but classic sausage-making: the Affordable Care Act owes its very existence to these kind of deals and worse. The question isn’t whether these maneuvers are ethical–they are not— but whether politics can exist without them, and whether one can have a functioning adversary party system without them. My guess is no. If you like the results of such old-fashioned hard-ball politics, then this is utilitarian: “Lincoln” showed how the 13th Amendment was passed by Lincoln’s operatives and lobbyists picking off weak and conflicted legislators like lions targeting wounded water buffalo. If you object to the results, well then, it’s dirty politics, and an unethical display of “the ends justify the means” at its worst.
But one man, had he integrity and proper respect for the job he had been entrusted by his constituents to do, could have made the whole matter academic by just performing the job he had been elected for, and subordinating his daughter’s career aspirations to his duty. Instead, Phillip P. Puckett betrayed his party, his post, his constituency and his state.
And one more thing: if his daughter were ethical, as judges are supposed to be, she would refuse to keep her judgeship this way.
Sources: Washington Post, Huffington Post