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Report: Va commerce secretary broke lobbying rule

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Local,Virginia,Watchdog,Lobbying,Ethics

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones may have broken a law that prohibits federal agencies from lobbying Congress, according to federal investigators.

Jones was deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year when emails were sent on his behalf to 1,000 recipients, including 46 of his own employees, asking them to contact several U.S. senators and encourage them to vote in favor of a budget bill.

Those emails violated the department's internal policy and appear to have violated a federal anti-lobbying law as well as personnel rules that prohibit officials from coercing political activities, according to a draft investigative report by the department's Office of Inspector General obtained by The Associated Press.

The findings were first reported by The Washington Times.

Investigators from the inspector general's office shared their findings with the Department of Justice, which declined to open a criminal investigation. The Office of Inspector General also forwarded its findings to the General Accountability Office and the Office of Special Counsel, which oversees federal personnel matters.

According to the report, Jones told investigators he was unaware of his department's policy that prohibited presidential appointees like Jones from lobbying Congress on pending legislation.

Through Gov. Terry McAuliffe's spokesman, Jones released a statement saying the emails were drafted and sent in consultation with his staffers and "reflected their best advice to me at the time."

"I would never intentionally violate the laws, policies or codes of conduct that govern public officials, and I regret that this email has raised even the appearance of any impropriety," Jones said.

Federal investigators also allege that Elliot Mincberg, a high ranking department official who had counseled Jones on sending the email, tried to interfere with the investigation and threatened investigators. Mincberg did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Office of Inspector General's investigation was spurred by a request from U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who chairs an investigations subcommittee of the House Committee on Financial Services.

The subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday on the inspector general's report.

Jones joined the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2012. His previous positions include being publisher of the Virginia Pilot newspaper and deputy chief of staff to then-Virginia Governor Mark Warner.

The Virginia Senate has already approved Jones' appointment, which was announced by McAuliffe earlier this year.

The House of Delegates was scheduled to vote on the confirmation Tuesday, but the vote was postponed.

Matthew Moran, a spokesman for House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, said lawmakers were given "pause" by the investigative report and wanted extra time to consider Jones' appointment.

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