"Bad on all sorts of levels" - GOP Sen. Bill DeSteph sparks backlash over another conflict of interest
Virginia Beach Senator Bill DeSteph is no stranger to shady deals and conflicts of interest. DeSteph, a licensed arms dealer, raised eyebrows when he registered his gun business to the same address as his Senate office. He also drew criticism for helping protect one of his biggest donors by personally interfering in an investigation into complaints brought against them.
Now, DeSteph is in hot water over a real estate deal he struck with the city of Virginia Beach. At a meeting attended by DeSteph in February, the city's Electoral Board decided to lease a building he owned. Part of the deal would have moved a polling location to DeSteph's building, creating what one VCU political scientist dubbed an "ugly mingling of personal business interests and public political decisions." When City Councilors recently became aware of the blatant conflict of interest, they voted against moving the polling location, thwarting another questionable DeSteph scheme. See below from the Virginian-Pilot:
By Peter Coutu & Marie Albiges
September 4, 2019
Virginia Beach recently signed a lease worth nearly $3 million over the next decade to rent a building owned by a state senator, raising conflict of interest questions for the local politician who is currently battling for re-election and used to serve on the City Council.
Officials had hoped to move the voter registrar’s office — and also set up an absentee voting location — in the space near Lynnhaven Mall.
State Sen. Bill DeSteph, a Virginia Beach Republican, has been managing director of the company that owns the building — Central Drive Investment Partners, LLC — since at least November 2015, according to his conflicts of interest disclosure forms that candidates are required to submit. His district office is about a block away from the building.
The move to relocate absentee voting to that space is now on hold after the City Council twice punted on deciding whether to change the address for the central precinct.
But Virginia Beach leaders say they would still find another use for the building.
Alex Keena, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, called the senator’s connection “troubling," described it as the “ugly mingling of personal business interests and public political decisions.” He said it’s the type of relationship that benefits neither party due to the appearance it leaves, even if nothing improper happens.
“For voters who are already sort of disillusioned with the state of American politics, and the quality of American democracy, this is just bad on all sorts of levels," he said.
DeSteph, who is now running for a second term in the Senate representing parts of Virginia Beach, said he didn’t think leasing a building to the city to use as an absentee polling location was a conflict of interest. Virginia has a legislature in which lawmakers serve part-time, often supplementing their legislative income with another job, he said.
“I’m an investor in about 50 buildings — probably more than that in Hampton Roads,” he said. “Frankly, (being a senator) should have absolutely nothing to do with what I do as a businessman.”
The agreement and potential relocation raised immediate questions when they were first brought up during a City Council meeting on Aug. 20, with critics questioning if a switch in precinct location 2½ months before state and local elections would hinder voting access. Absentee voting starts Sept. 20.
“You can call it discrimination; you can call it voter suppression,” said local activist Andrew Jackson at the meeting. “I don’t care what you call it, but it’s wrong.”
During that meeting, the council unanimously voted to delay the decision until Sept. 3 after Councilwoman Jessica Abbott said there was insufficient information to approve the switch. DeSteph’s connection to the building was not brought up at last month’s meeting.
On Tuesday, the council voted to defer again, this time indefinitely. The decision means the voter registrar’s move from Building 14 in the city’s Municipal Center has been delayed until at least after this year’s elections, said Donna Patterson, the city’s general registrar.
“It gets to a certain point where you need to stay put for planning purposes,” she said. “I got to a point where I wanted to stay put until after the November election.”
DeSteph’s connection to the building became public after the City Council meeting in August, and many on social media raised questions of election security and fairness.
Patterson said she didn’t know until recently that DeSteph — who was a council member from 2010 until his successful run for the Virginia Beach House District in 2013 — owned the property. But she emphasized the need for extra space is a pressing concern, as her office has been asking for more room since the 2008 elections.
“We have a very secure environment," she said. "But that was new to me.”
In the search for a new voter registrar’s office, Patterson was looking for conference rooms and enough space to train election officials and do recounts so they wouldn’t have to move ballots in the future.
The transaction started about a year ago, though it’s unclear which party approached the other.
DeSteph’s real estate agent, Janet Whitbeck, said the city requested to rent the entire 20,000-square-foot building, which was completed this year. Half of the space is for administrative uses and the other half is a warehouse, according to Tom Nicholas, the city’s facilities manager, who said Virginia Beach put out a request for proposals for its needs before deciding to lease the building. It yielded one bid and a deal didn’t work out with that entity.
He also said he didn’t know DeSteph’s connection to the company from which they were renting the property.
“This was news to me,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to us a whole lot who the owner is.”
The lease was executed in May and the city has been waiting on completion of the build-out to move in, Nicholas said. He said payments, which come out to $22,500 a month for the first year, won’t start until the city moves into the space.
If Patterson’s office doesn’t occupy the building, another city department will, Virginia Beach officials said. Because of the May 31 mass shooting, which displaced workers in the public utilities, public works, planning and information technology departments, many divisions are in need of proper space.
“We have a signed lease with these folks,” Nicholas said. “The space is built out and ready to be used. It remains to be seen whether City Council and voter registrar will move there or not.”
Along with the elections office, the central absentee precinct could also move to DeSteph’s building, where thousands of residents would cast ballots if they are unable to vote on Election Day.
In 2018, nearly 15,000 absentee ballot votes were cast at the Municipal Center for the 2nd Congressional District race. In 2016 — a presidential election year — that number for the same race was nearly double. This year, absentee voting begins Sept. 20 and ends Nov. 2.
Missy Cotter Smasal, DeSteph’s Democratic challenger for the 8th Senate District, said his connection is a conflict of interest.
“His name’s on the ballot two months from now," she said. "I’m concerned that it’s part of a pattern of Sen. DeSteph continuing to personally profit off his own voters.”
Patterson said she doesn’t think the connection to a current state senator would jeopardize residents’ confidence in her office or in the fairness of elections. She said she views the transaction as being with an investment company instead of specifically with DeSteph, who in 2015 won the District 8 state senate seat, which covers parts of Virginia Beach.
“I don’t want to do anything that would make the public question what we do in our office," she said. "I want the public, their perception of our office, to be nonpartisan. Because that’s what we are. Moving forward, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The building is also roughly a mile away from the closest bus route, raising questions about access for voters. Then-City Manager Dave Hansen said at the earlier council meeting that routes could be changed in the future.
But with plans on hold to move the central absentee precinct and the voter registrar’s office, Patterson is finalizing preparations for the November elections under the assumption her office is staying at the Municipal Center. Residents can cast absentee ballots at Building 14 and several other locations.
“We have an election to plan," she said, “and that’s our biggest focus right now.”Read the full article here