City Councilman Linwood Branch, knowing he had at least an indirect, if not direct, business and financial relationship with Gold Key Resorts, went to City Attorney Les Lilley three times since 1999 to get legally blessed to vote for the interests of Edmund C. Ruffin and Bruce L. Thompson.
The most recent opinion, issued by Lilley last month, even got Commonwealth Atty. Harvey L. Bryant III's seal of approval. And in that last one, Branch admitted to receiving income through Ruffin and Thompson that he hadn't acknowledged in the two previous opinions.
Ruffin and Thompson, a convicted federal felon and a convicted federal misdemeanant, respectively, have been selected by the City Council to develop a public/private partnership hotel at 31st Street, a controversial development opposed by the majority of the public in last year's referendum. But the will of the people was given no significance, since somehow, they also voted, in the strangest of mixed signals, to elect to council those committed to doing the opposite of what the people wanted at 31st Street.
The legal opinions are basically that, a 'get-out-of-jail-free-card' to do what you want since the state law is so ambiguous that it probably isn't enforceable except when a public official is directly caught receiving money to use his official position in a favorable way for the gift-giver. And that action would be easier prosecuted as a bribe. Lilley's opinions basically acknowledge that to be true. He concludes each with:
"The law does not, however, protect against all appearances of improper influence. In that respect, the Act places the burden on the individual officer to evaluate whether the facts presented create an appearance of impropriety which is unacceptable or which could affect the confidence of the public in the officer's ability to be impartial."
Booth @ ice cream stand leased to Gold Key Resorts
In his 1st statement of facts, dated July 13, 1999, Branch acknowledged: Gold Key (identifying Ruffin and Thompson as partners thereof) 'occasionally refers guests to Days Inn.' He did not state whether he received any income from the deal and said he sublets a small retail booth to Lar-Jac Corp., (a family related business) which in turn leases to Gold Key. He did not state whether he received any income from that arrangement. (Unrelated, he said family members also owned property at 31st Street that was scheduled to be condemned for the hotel project.) He wanted the opinion to cover all bases. Lilley gave him a clean bill of health on all issues to vote for the developers.
In his 2nd statement of facts, dated as recently as April 24, 2001, Branch said he leases the booth area to Lar-Jac, now on a 15-year lease for a fixed sum; that Lar-Jac can sublet the property; and that he has no ownership interest in Lar-Jac; that Lar-Jac leases to Gold Key, "a time share business in which Edmund Ruffin and Bruce Thompson are partners..." and the rent is $7,000/yr. Branch makes no mention at this time of his room rental contract with Gold Key. Lilley again gives him a clean bill of health to vote for Ruffin and Thompson as 31st partners of the city.
In his 3rd statement of facts, dated June 11, 2001, just 6-days after VNS first brought the issue of room rent referrals and conflict of interest questions to Branch's attention at a Village Inn breakfast meeting he had with another person: he advised Lilley Gold Key Resorts has 15 owners and Ruffin and Thompson, ..."either directly or indirectly, are majority stockholders...,"; that he has a "year-to-year, nonexclusive written contract with Gold Key..." whereby he "...reserves a certain number of rooms for ... Gold Key..."clients and that referral fees collected by him under the contract exceeds..."$10,000 a year." He makes no mention of the Lar-Jac Corp. lease or its relationship with Gold Key. Lilley was much more cautious and circumspect in this opinion, but citing the law's ambiguity, again cleared Branch for future votes for Ruffin and Thompson. Lilley did solicit and get Commonwealth's Atty. Bryant's concurrence. But like, all other opinions, he closed with his standard advice that the final decision comes down to the public official himself.
When Branch got the June 11, 2001 opinion, he sent it and other information to VNS by Priority Mail and by telephone agreed to meet and discuss the issues and questions after VNS had read the documents. He refused to keep his word, declining numerous attempts to talk with him. Even after VNS hand-delivered a set of questions for him to review in advance, he refused. VNS therefore had no choice, but to interview Branch's empty chair.
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