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This "Pantele Thing"



City Councilman Bill Pantele states that he intends to run his recently announced mayoral campaign on the idea that only he can bring honesty and integrity to the Richmond mayor's office.

You have to be kidding me.

"I want to fulfill the promise of this great capital city," the man who says he will be "the people's mayor" told a group of supporters when he tossed his hat into the ring to replace Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. "Five years ago, we were frustrated by the poorly run government, the poor ethics, and the city was not reaching its potential, so we moved to an elected mayor form of government to put aside politics, unify the region and realize those dreams. Today, we're still unfulfilled."

Of course, the question needs to be asked: How long has this man been on City Council? (Answer: since 2001.)

And what, in all that time in office, has the 2nd District councilman done about the "poorly run government, the poor ethics, and the city ... not reaching its potential"? Doesn't Pantele, who's served as City Council president the past two years, need to take a measure of responsibility for all of these unfulfilled dreams? And doesn't this disingenuous statement say boatloads about how a Mayor Pantele would actually embrace accountability?

I guess it depends on whom the candidate will ultimately be accountable to. On that note, Pantele's campaign recently sent out an e-mail loudly announcing that he leads in fundraising in the race for mayor.

For accountability's sake, the Virginia Public Access Project's Web page lists Pantele's campaign contributors from 2003 to 2007. Take a scroll and count the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation board members who saw their taxpayer-funded real estate deal shoved through City Council, thanks to Pantele. The project was excused from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, restricting public access to the foundation's finances. Ah, accountability.A, 

Take another look and count the big developers onboard the Pantele train.

R3 Development and U.S. Property Development Corp. are responsible for the controversial Echo Harbour high-rise condominium project that would have severely limited public access to, and views of, the James River and runs counter to the direction of Richmond's proposed Downtown Master Plan. Overwhelmed by negative public sentiment, the developers are reconsidering their original proposal.

"The Downtown Master Plan provides us with a good place to start," Pantele tells Richmond voters on his campaign Web site, a less than definitive statement from the people's mayor concerning the people's plan, which was created through an inclusive process that was referred to by one wag as a sudden outbreak of democracy in Richmond.

As one of his opponents in the mayor's race, Paul Goldman, has noted, the picture that graced the invitation for Pantele's most recent $1,000-a-plate fundraiser was a photo of the James River from Libby Hill Park in Church Hill. This is the very view that would have been blocked by the Echo Harbour condominiums. Is this just sloppy propaganda on the part of Pantele's campaign handlers? Or is it a sly wink to Bill's developer friends that signals, under Mayor Pantele, a return to business as usual?

You'd think after touting the historic river view so prominently on his campaign propaganda that the people's mayor would want to be very clear about his intentions concerning future riverfront development. All one has to do is to note how his Virginia Performing Arts Foundation campaign contributors were taken care of (Council Vice Chairwoman Delores McQuinn called Pantele's efforts on their behalf "a rush job") and you'll get a sense of what riverfront development would be like under Mayor Pantele.

Lastly, it's ironic that the councilman should be so proud of how much money he's raised so far and cite Richmond's poor ethics at campaign stops. Looking at the revealing list of Pantele's past enablers, we see traces of perhaps the most notorious campaign contribution that Pantele was ever involved in.

On his list of contributors is Historic Housing LLC, a company affiliated with disgraced developer H. Louis Salomonsky, who you may recall was sent to prison for his role in offering a bribe to former City Councilwoman Gwen Hedgepeth in 2002.

And what was the then-soon-to-be-indicted Hedgepeth being bribed to do, you might wonder? Why, she was being handed a brown paper bag full of money in exchange for her vote to -- ta da! -- elect Pantele as mayor. You see, this was back in the days when City Council members chose the mayor from their ranks.

Salomonsky had asked fellow developer Bob Davis to approach Hedgepeth about casting her vote for Pantele as mayor and later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion for his part in bribing Hedgepeth. The FBI transcript of the bribe (between the councilwoman and convicted felon Davis, who was wearing a wire) went down like this:

Hedgepeth: "You have asked me about helping you with this Pantele thing. And so I can help with that. All right?"
Davis: "OK."
Hedgepeth: "Now, when can you help me with my debt? ... I take whatever I can get, man."
Davis: "How do you want it? In cash or check? How do you want the money?"

Prosecutors in Hedgepeth's bribery trial showed the jury videotaped footage of Davis handing Hedgepeth $500. A few years later, the "Pantele thing" was cited as one of the main reasons why an overwhelming majority of Richmonders voted in favor of a new city charter that allows the people to elect the city's mayor, taking it out of the sketchy hands of City Council members such as Hedgepeth and Pantele.

Some of his supporters would have you believe that Pantele was an innocent party in all of this and that he got nothing out of it. But after receiving her bribe money, Hedgepeth informed Davis that "we worked something out so [Pantele] could at least have a chairmanship." Not long after, Pantele was appointed chairman of the city's transportation committee.
Pantele would prefer that you not remember any of this. He stands before us now, pontificating on the city's poor ethics and touting the money he's been given from his friends. But he was right at the center of the sleaze that spurred Richmond to directly elect its mayor.

While the councilman was never formally charged with anything in the affair, this caught-in-the-act money-drop suggests that Davis wanted Pantele to be mayor for some specific reason -- and it probably wasn't to bring all Richmonders together.

Meaningful change, honest government, accountability -- a mayor for the people? Only if you have a short memory. S

Don Harrison is a Richmond-based writer and the co-founder of Saverichmond.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.