There's not much to see, but there is a lot of it: a vast, verdant plain stretching off to the big trees - dark, leafy trees that line the horizon and confer in clusters amid a few old farm buildings. There is a wide gravel road that leads the way through miles of fields. And, beyond it all, far, far in the distance, there is the glimmer of fresh water.
Curles Neck Farm, an immense plantation along the James River at the southeastern end of Henrico County, yields corn, wheat and soybeans most of the year. In late fall, however, the ducks arrive to feed at its marshes. And Dick Watkins' friends arrive to hunt the ducks. They've done it for decades, by the book and without incident. Even staying under their limit some years so as not to strain the population.
But Watkins, owner of Curles Neck Farm and a former state game commission member, won't be joining his friends this November. In March he was sentenced to three years' probation, given a $5,000 fine, and ordered not to hunt for a year.
The former game commissioner had broken a federal game law.
"I was the guilty party and nobody in the club knew anything," Richard E. "Dick" Watkins says, amiably and without tension, his calmness clear despite the erratic crackle of the cell phone. "The main point I'd like to make is this was entirely my mistake."
The mistake - and the law Watkins pleaded guilty to breaking - conspiracy in the illegal placement of bait in the taking of migratory waterfowl - illegal duck baiting - is not particularly important or interesting. The "club" is.
The Curles Neck Duck Club, as it is described in court documents, appears to have no corporate status or organizational structure. It appears to have no officers, offices or even letterhead. In fact, the Curles Neck Duck Club appears to exist only as a list of members and a summary of expenditures, and only then in documents that clearly were developed only to satisfy a subpoena. Only the few letters that 63-year-old Watkins, the club's leader and host, wrote to members over the years announcing the latest annual dues increase identify the club by name.
"It's really a group of my friends, is what it is," Watkins says.
They're prominent people: doctors, lawyers, businessmen and other professionals. There's William H. Talley III, as in, Bill Talley Ford. And, unquestionably the most influential member of the club, Robert H. "Bob" Patterson Jr., the retired McGuire Woods Battle & Boothe eminence and state political strings puller.
Eleven of them were there in November 1998 on the day federal wildlife agents arrested Watkins. He says the club's members couldn't have known why he was being arrested. But Raymond Stevenson, an employee of his at Curles Neck Farm for 30 years, says otherwise.
In a signed statement to authorities, Stevenson says farm property was illegally baited with Japanese millet seed pellets to attract ducks not just once, as Watkins claims, but for "eight of the last 10 seasons," and a millet field was planted so "we would have an excuse for millet being found at a duck blind if we were checked out by a game warden."
"There are a lot of important people who hunt in the club, and we need to keep birds there to shoot for the paying members," Stevenson says in the statement. "There are probably some members of the club that do not know about the bait, but many of the older members are aware of the bait." In fact, Stevenson says in the statement, at least one member had helped put out bait in the past.
Watkins insists this is not so. His "mistake," he says, was his alone. It happened Nov. 13, 1998, four days before duck hunting season was to start. On one hand, he had a weather-damaged hunting marsh likely to draw fewer ducks. But on the other hand he had excess millet from his legal July planting. "We had 10 to 12 bags of this stuff left over" and no place to store it, he says, no place to keep it from hungry winter mice. "Impulsively, I said, 'Shoot. Why don't we just take it out and throw it out there'" in the hunting marsh.
The wildlife agents were watching, "videotaping me." When the 11 club members present at his arrest began killing the ducks four days later, on the first day of the hunting season, knowingly or not, they made Watkins' baiting a crime.
The case came before Federal District Judge Robert E. Payne, a former law partner of club member Patterson's at McGuire Woods, where Payne worked from 1971 to 1992.
Payne does not comment on cases and would not comment on this one, his assistants say. But Patterson, state political analysts note, would have been instrumental in getting Payne appointed to the federal bench in 1992.
Bob Holsworth, director of Virginia Commonwealth University's public policy center, calls Patterson "well-respected" and "well-connected, and not in a bad way." Larry Sabato, Holsworth's counterpart at the University of Virginia, calls Patterson "a very prominent individual in legal and political circles - a really big cheese."
Patterson was not available late last week to comment, but McGuire Woods spokesman Will Alcott acknowledges that Patterson's connection to Payne was an issue in the early stages of the case against Watkins. However, Alcott adds, it was quickly determined that Patterson would not be a witness, and Payne would not face a potential conflict and need to consider removing himself from the case.
Law professors from Rod Smolla at the University of Richmond to James Moliterno, vice dean of the William & Mary law school and an expert in this area, agree that Payne did nothing wrong and was not in any real danger of doing so.
"Judge Payne has such a stellar reputation," Smolla says. "My take is that there really is not a conflict of interest."
Moliterno agrees. "My instinct is that it doesn't sound at all unusual for him to have gone ahead and presided," he says, adding that Payne would not have been disqualified from the case "even if [Patterson] had been the actual defendant" and not merely a friend of the defendant and a former associate of the judge.
"All but the closest personal relationships" are tolerated between judges and parties to cases, Moliterno adds. Smolla says that's due, in part, to necessity: "In a city of medium size like Richmond, it is very common" for judges and those with an interest in cases before them to know and have worked with each other. "We couldn't run the system if anytime someone with a prior relationship" had to be excluded from proceedings, Smolla says.
No court documents appear to exist regarding the matter, but the prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney N. George Metcalf, says he has no complaints.
"Could it have been a conflict? Yes," Metcalf says, but adds that Payne was never in a compromised position. Metcalf did not make a motion for Payne to recuse himself, and says he has "no complaint" about the judge's handling of the case. And when Watkins pleaded guilty to the conspiring charge, Metcalf says, the issue vanished completely.
But what about worries that the judge would go easy on the friend of a friend? What about sentencing?
Metcalf, in his court filings, called Watkins' case "more egregious than the normal baiting case" and an "elaborate ruse" that merited stiff punishment. In addition to citing farm worker Stevenson's statement, Metcalf noted that the Japanese millet pellets used were an "ideal" illegal bait: "Because of their size, they pass through the typical screens used by game wardens to retrieve bait samples, yet the waterfowl know of its presence and flock to it."
He argued that Watkins' conduct was worse than that in three similar cases in which defendants had received 30 to 45 days in jail, $2,000 to $3,000 in fines, and 30 days' to three years' suspension of their hunting privileges. Watkins' attorneys - from Hunton & Williams - filed their own compelling arguments, which included that because Watkins had not operated the club as a commercial enterprise, as defendants in the other cases had, he therefore merited more lenient sentencing.
All this Judge Payne had before him, and the pre-sentencing report on Watkins that had been prepared for the court. And the letters: There were four of them to the judge from Curles Farm Duck Club members attesting to Watkins' character and claiming the rest of the club had known nothing of the illegal activity.
None of the letters was from Patterson. The judge ruled March 22.
"He slapped the man pretty hard," Metcalf says. The punishment fell within the sentencing guidelines' range, giving neither the prosecution nor defense any real reason or, in fact, opportunity to appeal it. The case was over.
Watkins received no jail time, but got three years' probation, was fined $5,000, and was ordered not to hunt for a year. He also was ordered to pay restitution of $800 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for the ducks killed the day he was arrested.
"It was a mistake," Watkins says of his conduct, and adds he'll miss hunting with his friends again this year - at Curles Neck Farm.
The club hasn't disbanded. "Instead," he says, "we've got several people who would like to get
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