RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Three years ago, Phil Hamilton was a Capitol Square wheeler-dealer, a major player in Virginia's General Assembly and the heir-apparent to command of the House Appropriations Committee, which basically controls state government's purse strings.
This month, Hamilton will most likely be sentenced to prison for his bribery and extortion convictions.
Legislators who served with him and who battled him for elected office are at a loss to reconcile the felon that a federal jury decreed Hamilton to be with the wonkish lawmaker who came to work before sunrise and seemed so ethically meticulous that he would list gift coffee mugs on his economic disclosure forms.
"I can't understand it, I really can't said Del. Johnny Joannou, a conservative Democrat from Portsmouth who toiled many a wee hour with the Republican Hamilton on conference committees where the final shape of Virginia's multibillion-dollar budgets are determined.
But Hamilton, 59, crossed what should have been a very clear, bright line when he shepherded a $500,000 budget amendment for a teacher training center at Old Dominion University through the complex and treacherous appropriations process, then solicited a $40,000-a-year job there.
Much of it was laid out in e-mails, written on his state legislative account and obtained by reporters under the Freedom of Information Act. Legislative colleagues said Hamilton's actions provided ample low-hanging fruit for federal prosecutors.
"Phil Hamilton was -- is -- a very intelligent man. He had an incredible mastery of the process. He was the go-to guy on health care and education issues, particularly mental health, and I worked with him very closely, and I very much like Phil, but never did this cross my mind," Joannou said. "I don't know how he didn't see that."
Hamilton, through his attorney, Andrew Sacks, declined on Friday to be interviewed before his Aug. 12 sentencing by U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson in Richmond. Federal prosecutors, saying Hamilton "betrayed a trust placed in him both by the citizens of this Commonwealth and his fellow legislators," will seek more than 12 1/2 years prison time.
Hamilton was, by bipartisan consensus, the House's resident expert on mental health issues, and one of the most effective and forceful advocates for reforms in the state's woeful system of treatment for the intellectually disabled during his tenure. It was his expertise and the clout he wielded as vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee that allowed him to increase funding, even in budget-cutting years, for community treatment of those with mental and developmental disabilities as an alternative to distant state hospitals.
And it was Hamilton who sought better state mental health crisis intervention long before a mentally disturbed Virginia Tech student who had slipped through the cracks in the mental health system shot 32 people dead and killed himself as police closed in on the Blacksburg campus in April 2007. Hamilton's ideas quickly became a prominent part of mental health reforms enacted overwhelmingly in response to the massacre.
"It's tragic in that he did a lot of good, especially with mental health issues, that Virginians still benefit from today, but that's not what he will be remembered for," said Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, leader of the House's Republican majority who became Appropriations vice chairman with Hamilton's downfall.
Like Joannou, Cox spent countless late nights with Hamilton on conference committees working out compromises on state budgets. "And he was our go-to guy. He had such a grasp of the budget and policy. He studied it, read every bill. During the session, he would be in his office every day by 4:30 in the morning."
At that, Cox paused, shook his head and frowned as he pondered the same perplexing question that dogs all of those who knew Hamilton so well. Or thought they did.
"It's not that hard to see," Cox said. "If you get to the point where you even have to ask the question, `Is this right or wrong?' then you have your answer."
Even the Democrat who unseated Hamilton in 2009 after the emerging scandal weakened him can't fathom how far and how fast he fell. Del. Robin Abbott recalled feeling a sad injustice at Hamilton's absence from a recent groundbreaking for a new hospital near Williamsburg, realizing that the good he did will be forgotten.
"I remember the disappointment of that moment because if it weren't for Phil, this facility would not be built," said Abbott, who won 54 percent of the vote over Hamilton in the Newport News district he represented for 22 years.
"It's a sad day for the commonwealth to see this happen because we need to have trust in our public officials, and when we lose that trust, it causes chaos throughout the entire system," she said.
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