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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Friday, July 29, 2005

Va. Democratic Party angry over GOP suit for insurance payback; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

The Republican Party of Virginia is suing its insurance carrier to recoup nearly $1 million in costs incurred to settle a lawsuit from a 2002 eavesdropping incident.

That has the state’s Democratic Party hopping mad — and thinking about going back to court for more money.
It started in March 2002, when then-Virginia GOP Executive Director Edmund Matricardi listened in on a Democratic conference call between members of the General Assembly and Gov. Mark R. Warner.

Before long, word got out about the eavesdropping, and Matricardi and others pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

Not long after, Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, and others who were on the call filed suit against the Republican Party in federal court. The case was settled for $750,000 in late 2004, just before it was slated to go to trial.

Party heavyweights, including 2005 GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore, who was then the state’s attorney general, were deposed for the case and likely would have been called to testify. Party attorneys told the court that the GOP didn’t have any insurance to cover damages or a settlement.

At the time, all involved thought that was the end of the matter. But the GOP filed suit against its insurance company earlier this month, seeking $950,000 in restitution the party says should have been paid out under its liability policy.

“Now, seven months after this case was settled, we learned that Republican Party of Virginia did have insurance, and they want to collect on it,” Del. Bob Brink, D-Arlington, told reporters Thursday.

The suit is an “effort by the RPV to avoid responsibility for their actions. One of the reasons settling this suit last year was acceptable was the that [GOP] would be responsible for their actions,” he said.

If the party does recover its costs, it allows them to “make dirty tricks just a line item in their budget,” he said.

“This is roughly akin to the kid that kills his parents and then pleads for mercy on the grounds that he’s an orphan,” Saslaw said. “Then they want the insurance company to come and bail their ass out.”

Knowing that the money was coming out of Republican coffers, and not the pockets of an insurance company, was a major factor in closing the case, added state Sen. Phil Puckett, D-Tazewell.

“That was one of the considerations we gave in deciding to settle this out of court,” he said. “I think we’d have been much less likely to have settled. We’d have liked to have gone to court and have the facts presented in a court of law.”

“I don’t like being lied to. I think that’s awful,” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, D-Arlington.

But the GOP did no such thing, according to Executive Director Sean Smith.

At the time of the July filing, the party was relatively sure it didn’t have any relevant insurance coverage. The company, Union Insurance, sent the party a letter in April 2004 declining to pay any claim resulting from the eavesdropping.

“This is a contractual dispute between the RPV and our insurance carrier,” he said. “Our insurance carrier refused to provide coverage, and we’re asking the court to interpret that agreement.”

Still, “it’s a sin of omission,” said Mark Bergman, the Democratic Party’s communications director. The rules call for disclosure of any potential insurance help, not just policies that are known to provide relevant coverage.

While some said they’d like to reopen the case, others added that it wasn’t clear if that was even an option.

In the meantime, Democrats in Virginia holding conference calls — including Thursday’s — now keep the phone numbers and pass-codes to such calls close to their chest, frequently requiring reporters to ask for them.

They also ask who has joined the call every time a new participant “beeps” onto the line.