Cuccinelli out of office, but not out of politics

Associated Press
Former Virginia AG Ken Cuccinelli may be out of office, but he's not out of politics.

RICHMOND — Since leaving elected office at the beginning of last year, former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has helped start an oyster farm, sued the National Security Administration, led a U.S. Senate-focused conservative political action committee and founded a law firm specializes in representing guns owners.

But the Republican, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2013, hasn't left state politics and policy debates entirely behind.

He has been an advocate for civil liberty-related legislation this year. He testified before a General Assembly committee about a proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution restricting unreasonable search and seizures. And he penned an editorial with the American Civil Liberties Union about the need to restrict the use of police surveillance technology.

Cuccinelli also recently reopened his state-level PAC and seeded it with $75,000 from his old gubernatorial account.

"In Virginia, while I have certainly stepped back from my former level of activity, I still do have a pulse," Cuccinelli said in an email. "I will try to be helpful in conservative campaigns this year as the GOP tries to hold on to the state Senate."

Cuccinelli said he currently has no plans to run for another elected office but could in the future.

Behind the scenes, Cuccinelli has encouraged Republican party operatives to find ways to make life uncomfortable for high-ranking Democrats.

In January, incoming Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck emailed a handful of party insiders that he had just spoken with Cuccinelli, who "had a great idea."

That idea, as Whitbeck described it in emails obtained by The Associated Press, was to find a way to make Cuccinelli's successor, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, look bad for not pursuing an investigation of high profile Democrats for their efforts to prevent the resignation of a key state senator last year.

"(Cuccinelli) thinks we should hammer Herring on his lack of action and come up with a really solid legal justification of why Herring could do something," Whitbeck wrote.

Whitbeck's email came a month after federal authorities had closed without filing charges an investigation into the circumstances of former Sen. Phil Puckett's resignation. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and Gov. Terry McAuliffe's chief of staff, Paul Reagan, both discussed potential job opportunities for Puckett's daughter as part of unsuccessful efforts to keep him from resigning, a move that cost Democrats control of the state Senate.

Cuccinelli suggested Republicans find a sympathetic local prosecutor to investigate on his or her own, according to Whitbeck's email.

Not everyone thought it was a great idea. The Republican Party of Virginia's executive director at the time, Shaun Kenney, opposed the plan, and nothing ultimately came from Cuccinelli's suggestions, Whitbeck said in an interview.

But the emails highlight that Cuccinelli still has the ears of some of the leaders of the state party, which has been marked by severe infighting for several years between its tea party conservative and establishment wings. Pro-Cuccinelli conservatives helped their candidate assure the GOP nomination for the 2013 gubernatorial contest by taking control of the Republican Party of Virginia's governing central committee and ensuring a statewide convention dominated by the party's right.

Cuccinelli said he has no official role with the state party, but offers suggestions when asked. He also recently sent out an email fundraiser asking supporters to give to the party.

"I think the current RPV (Republican Party of Virginia) wants to serve the grassroots as well as it can, I'm trying to encourage conservatives around Virginia to be supportive," he said.

As for his advocacy on civil liberty issues, Cuccinelli said the issues of personal privacy rights are important to him.

The proposed constitutional amendment legislation he supported, which sponsor Del. Rich Anderson said Cuccinelli helped word, failed in the General Assembly. But lawmakers recently came down on Cuccinelli and the ACLU's side limiting police surveillance technology when they overturned some of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe's related vetoes.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said Cuccinelli has long been an advocate on certain civil liberty issues and she's not surprised by his continued involvement after leaving office.

"Us policy wonks, it's hard for any of us to get out of the game," she said. "I think it's in his DNA."

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