While Mayor L. Douglas Wilder threatens to take the gloves off in his royal rumble with City Council and the School Board, lingering questions about his eligibility to run for re-election could force him out of the ring.
Wilder's camp has previously said eligibility questions were resolved after his son, Larry Wilder Jr., pleaded guilty in August to two misdemeanor counts of violating state election laws. Wilder Jr. was treasurer of his father's campaign for governor in 1989 and failed to account for a missing $172,000 left over from the campaign.
But the State Board of Elections considers the case unresolved. The money still hasn't been accounted for, and state law says that no candidate can be certified to hold public office if they've failed to file campaign-finance reports, pay fines for late filings or return leftover contributions as required.
The board is awaiting clarification from the state attorney general's office on whether the law would affect Wilder's eligibility should he run, and win, a second term for mayor in 2009.
As part of a plea deal Aug. 10, Larry Wilder admitted to a role in the money's disappearance. Circuit Court Judge Walter W. "Pete" Stout III handed him two 12-month suspended sentences and fined him $5,000, with $4,000 suspended.
The case seemed closed, but the state election board recently contacted Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring. In a letter dated Dec. 12, the board asks for clarification of Larry Wilder's role and a resolution of what happened to the money.
Reports "have not been filed by the campaign committee since 2001," writes Nancy Rodrigues, the election board's secretary. "Until a final report is filed, the State Board of Elections (SBE) is not able to close the campaign account and must consider assessing civil penalties against the committee for failing to file the required reports."
Former Wilder aide-de-camp Paul Goldman briefly took over as the campaign's treasurer when the board first asked its questions. He attempted to resolve the matter and left a balance of approximately $2,000 in the account to cover costs of potential civil penalties for improper filing.
Chris Piper, the state board's campaign finance manager, who first uncovered the Wilder finance irregularity, could not comment on whether the lingering filing hang-ups threatened Wilder's eligibility to run for re-election next year. Recent changes in election law require resolution of outstanding campaign accounts before an individual can be certified to hold another elected office.
Part of the remaining issue may be that Wilder Jr. did not plead guilty specifically to taking the money, leaving the question of where it went. Also, there's no record of when the money was withdrawn.
Goldman says no one was able to give him the date the money was withdrawn. "That's why I said I was unable to file a report," he says. "They just said we took the money; they didn't say when."
Herring says he's done all he can to satisfy the needs of the State Board of Elections. "Ultimately, the State Board is going to have to make the decision of whether they can accept the final report," Herring says, "not us."
In a letter to the board Dec. 17, Herring's deputy Chris Bullard suggests that further clarification should come from Attorney General Bob McDonnell's office.
Herring sees a simple solution. "Perhaps someone was unable to interpret from the context of the guilty pleas that the money went to Larry Wilder," he says. "We've confirmed that the treasurer took from the candidate, and it appears that all that needs to be done now is for a representative of the campaign to state that: Funds were inappropriately disbursed to Larry Wilder."