Democratic leader wants to remove legislators from tobacco commission
For years, critics have speculated that House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong sought changes to the tobacco commission because he was bitter he was never appointed to the panel that doles out money from a settlement with the nation's tobacco companies.
Now, Armstrong wants to make sure that legislators never serve on the commission.
Armstrong has introduced two bills that he says would help protect millions of dollars earmarked for the most economically depressed areas of the state -- including HB2114, that would ban legislators from serving on the commission.
"There is too great a temptation to want to play political patronage,'' he said. "There is a great temptation to want to try to support and help a constituent, and so you have a situation where a business person or some constituent in your district comes forward and says, 'Hey, I need some money for my business. I need some economic development money.' You're hard-pressed if you represent that person to tell them no or say this really isn't in the overall scheme of things."
The commission has come under added scrutiny this legislative session after a $4 million theft.
John W. Forbes, 54, secretary of finance under Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), was sentenced to 10 years in prison last year for defrauding the commission of $4 million. He received a $5 million grant for the Literary Foundation of Virginia, which he founded as a charitable organization, but later admitted that he used $4 million of the money for a new home, personal investments, cash and to start a company.
Armstrong (D-Henry), whose district benefits from the settlement, requested a legislative audit in 2009 after he became concerned that commission members had approved several small pet projects in their districts that he dubbed earmarks. The Republican-controlled House killed the bill, but it was passed as part of a state budget compromise in the 2010 legislative session.
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly's investigative arm, expects to issue a report in June.
Armstrong's second bill, HB2115, calls for JLARC to oversee and evaluate the commission on a continuing basis and administer performance audits every two years.
"I cannot sit here and tell you there needs to be adjustments, but I have concerns ... whether we are getting our economic bang for the buck out of the tobacco commission,'' he said. "It's a substantial amount of money. It is taxpayer dollars. Once the money is gone, it's gone. If it isn't used to transform Southside Virginia, we've done a disservice to the public.''
| January 18, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: Anita Kumar, General Assembly 2011, House of Delegates, State Senate
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