Citing tougher scrutiny, Republican upends VA Senate with resignation

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

State Sen. John Watkins, a Republican, is retiring.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Republican state Sen. John Watkins is retiring after three and a half decades in the General Assembly, throwing the future of party control of the Senate into chaos once more.

Republicans gained control of the Senate and halted hopes of Medicaid expansion this spring when Democratic Sen. Phil Puckett abruptly resigned, reportedly with job incentives to either stay or leave from both Democrats and Republicans. Watkins, a moderate, represents a moderate district west of Richmond, which means Democrats have a shot at control.

Watkins gave the often-given explanation of wanting to spend more time with his grandchildren. But part of his explanation for leaving that Watkins cited to CBS 6 in Richmond is the increased scrutiny in the wake of the indictment and conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell. Watkins told the station he had been considering retirement ever since McDonnell’s September conviction.

“I’ve been thinking of it since this whole thing with Bob McDonnell. It will make it very difficult for someone like myself,” Watkins told CBS 6.“I would always be called into question.”

Increased scrutiny and tougher ethics and disclosure laws are bound to come, thanks to public pressure — it just depends what kind of laws the General Assembly can agree upon this spring.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has set up a commission that’s already suggesting legislation to give an ethics panel the ability to launch investigations.

Come next year, state lawmakers will have to go on the record with whether they’d vote to criminalize any ethical violations within their own ranks.

AP file photo

TOUGHER REFORMS: State Sen. Chap Petersen and Sen. Richard Stuart are pushing for tighter ethics reforms.

Democratic state Sen. Chap Petersen and Republican state Sen. Richard Stuart are raising the stakes with a bill that bans state employees, candidates for office and elected officials from accepting any tangible gift over $100, prohibits them from taking official action because of a gift, and requires an ethics panel to review any intangible gift — like airfare — over $100.

The bill adds some “teeth” to the Virginia Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, as Petersen put it.

First-time offenders would be slapped with a $250 fine, and anyone who breaks the rules a second time within four years would be charged with a class one misdemeanor.

Petersen said he’d hate to think Watkins would leave because of tighter ethics reforms, saying he’s “sure that’s not the reason.”

The increased media scrutiny has its pressures. Petersen said it was probably a lot easier back in the day when it was just a “gentlemen’s agreement,” but if current laws aren’t working, change needs to happen.

“Clearly, we’ve had issues in Virginia, or else we wouldn’t have a governor about to go to prison,” Petersen told Watchdog.org.

McDonnell’s sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 6 — just eight days before the start of the 2015 legislative session.

— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be found on Twitter @kathrynw5.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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