By most accounts, Lawrence D. Wilder Jr. decided it was time to take his lumps Aug. 10 in Richmond Circuit Court. He pleaded guilty to two election-law violations stemming from his time as treasurer for his father's 1989 gubernatorial campaign.
But to hear critics tell it, Larry Wilder threw himself under the re-election bus of his father, Mayor Doug Wilder.
Because of the missing money, Mayor Wilder was unable to file a final financial report for his gubernatorial campaign. And because of recent election-law changes, there were unanswered questions about whether Wilder could run for a second term as mayor without that report.
"It's very clear that Doug Wilder was the primary beneficiary of this," says former Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks. In 2005 the State Board of Elections tasked Hicks' office with investigating the unaccounted-for $172,000 in Mayor Wilder's campaign finance filings. "Larry was ultimately the fall guy for others," Hicks says.
Hicks has been a frequent critic of his successor, Michael Herring, who took over the investigation after Hicks left office. Herring, whose office held a press conference the same day Larry Wilder pleaded guilty, called the "fall guy" suggestion "laughable."
Both Herring and Hicks have disclosed close ties to Larry Wilder and other Wilder family members, which is why Herring turned the case over to a deputy in his office, and why Hicks maintains Herring should have turned it over to a special prosecutor.
In the end, Herring kept the case and negotiated for Larry Wilder to waive the long-expired statute of limitations on the misdemeanor election-law violations. Circuit Court Judge Walter W. "Pete" Stout III handed Wilder 12-month suspended sentences and a $2,500 fine for each charge. All but $500 of each fine was also suspended.
Prosecutors chose not to pursue felony embezzlement charges because, according to Herring, proving the charges would have been nearly impossible without Mayor Wilder's cooperation.
Mayor Wilder, through his lawyer, indicated he would not press charges or cooperate in such a prosecution, Herring says.
In leveling his latest criticism, Hicks says he's simply following the "if" to the "then": If Larry Wilder pleaded guilty to the election violations, then his father has a documented answer for the election board about what happened to the missing money.
"Why would Larry feel compelled to plea to charges with expired statute of limitations?" Hicks says. "The only winner in this was whomever needed this issue cleared so the election board could move on."
Chris Piper, administrator of the State Board of Elections campaign finance division, would not comment on the particulars of the case until he'd received direction from the Attorney General's Office.
But Piper did say that a resolution was necessary to close the Wilder for Governor account: "We can't close the account -- they can't close the account." To do that, he needs reports from the Wilder campaign for every year between 1999 and 2005, as well as a final report. "That's our biggest issue," he says. "We need the account closed."
A bank account tied to the Wilder for Governor campaign still contains about $2,500, the proceeds of which could be used to pay penalties for late filings. It's also enough to cover the $1,000 Larry Wilder was fined in his guilty pleas. S
Editors' note: In the print version of this story, we transposed the numbers referring to the date of Mayor Wilder's gubernatorial campaign. Style regrets the error.