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Posted at 12:06 PM ET, 07/27/2010

A PAC conflict of interest for Virginia's rail chief?

By Peter Galuszka

Since being named Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's top state rail official earlier this year, Thelma Drake has been on a roll -- literally.

The former Republican congresswoman from Norfolk has been busy speaking to business groups, telling them the gritty facts about the challenges and costs of improving passenger rail service and winning the Old Dominion a bigger share of the billions being given out to promote higher-speed passenger service.

On July 20, Drake was aboard a special media rail car to inaugurate a new Amtrak passenger train from Richmond to Washington and Boston. Along with Amtrak and CSX rail officials, she proclaimed "aren't you glad you're not on Interstate 95" as the train chugged out of the station slightly late at 7:02 a.m., arriving five minutes early at Union Station in D.C. at 9:25 a.m.

The point was that more than half of all Amtrak passenger trains run late in Virginia, but the new Richmond run probably won't because it originates in the state capital and could offer businesspeople and other travelers a reliable commuting alternative to D.C.'s horrendous car traffic.

That is what makes Drake's apparent conflict of interest strange. Although she is director of rail and public transportation, she is also head of a Republican political action committee called the Tusk and Trunk Club. Besides raising money for GOP political causes, the club holds an annual "Party on the Pier," heavy on seafood and beer, on the shorefront of the Ocean View section of Norfolk.

Norfolk Southern Railroad donated $1,000 to the Tusk and Trunk Club this year. Drake says she sees no conflict, even though her high-profile state job obviously involves her with railroad firms. Amtrak, for instance, uses both Norfolk Southern and CSX lines in the state.

The Roanoke Times editorialized that "such a lax attitude is not a phenomenon of the McDonnell administration." In the Virginia system, state workers are pretty much left to make their own decisions in conflict cases because there aren't clear-cut laws on conflicts of interest. But, as the newspaper says, the head of the state rail agency shouldn't simultaneously head a PAC that collects rail money for political causes. "That should be self-evident," the paper says.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon's Rebellion . The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Peter Galuszka  | July 27, 2010; 12:06 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia, development, economy, energy, environment, traffic, transportation  
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