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McAuliffe defends executive order on felons rights

In dueling media events on Friday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe defended his executive order restoring voting and other civil rights to more than 200,000 violent and non-violent felons, saying he has been "like a dog to a bone" on the issue, while Republican leaders excoriated the governor for implementing a "reckless" policy that has returned rights to sexual predators.

In a conference call with reporters later Friday morning, House and Senate Republican leaders, who are challenging McAuliffe's April 22 executive order in Virginia's Supreme Court, pointed to a Thursday story in the Washington Post, which reported that some of the violent felons whose rights have been restored were convicted of sex crimes, including sexual assault on a child, as well as a former police officer who shot and killed a school teacher.

McAuliffe's spokesman said the system for identifying felons eligible to have their rights restored is still a work in progress, and promised that any errors would be corrected.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) called this "a flippant excuse," telling reporters that "the governor was so eager to get [the rights restoration] done, it appears he didn't even do due diligence."

"I'm frankly stunned at what we've learned," Howell said. "It's incredibly reckless, and exceeds what were even our worst fears about the governor's executive order."

"The governor, himself, needs to address these revelations."

In his radio interview, McAuliffe ignored the Post's reporting, focusing on the lawsuit, which is scheduled to be heard July 19. He dismissed as "false" charges that he lacked the constitutional authority to issue a blanket pardon. "I am the one with the clemency powers. Actions I took put us in line with 40 other states."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states and the District of Columbia restore most felons' right to vote after serving their prison terms. In two states, Maine and Vermont, felons never lose the right to vote, even while in prison.

McAuliffe acknowledged that former Gov. Tim Kaine's legal counsel, Paul Rubin, had considered, and rejected, the idea of blanket rights restoration in 2010.  "Governor Kaine’s lawyer is certainly entitled to his opinion."

He added that he had spoken with Kaine, who is now a senator, and that he had "complimented me" for issuing the order. McAuliffe said the former governor was always sympathetic to the idea of a blanket rights restoration, but that the request came too late in Kaine's term to act on it.

"It took us two years to figure this out," McAuliffe said, adding that he relied "on the experts" to formulate his plan.

McAuliffe needled Republican legislators  for using the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Cooper & Kirk to represent them in their challenge against his order.   "No Virginia lawyer would help the Republicans," he said. Instead, they "went to a Reagan lawyer in D.C."

"I rely on Virginians to give me advice on the Virginia constitution," McAuliffe said.

Charles Cooper, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, served as an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel from 1985 to 1988. McAuliffe is being represented by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

McAuliffe batted away suggestions that he issued his order in hopes of bolstering Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in the state.  He is a long-time Clinton associate who chaired her 2008 presidential campaign and is one of several co-chairmen of her Virginia effort.

"If I were to do this for political purposes, I would have done it last year," when he was actively campaigning across the state for Democratic Senate candidates, he said, and could have made rights restoration a key issue in his effort to win back control of the Senate from Republicans. 

McAuliffe added that if he were to  issue a rights restoration order next year, critics would say: "oh, he’s doing it to help Ralph Northam.”

Northam, Virginia's incumbent lieutenant governor, has already declared his candidacy for the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. McAuliffe is limited to a single, four-year term.