Va. Bar Could Reverse Limits On Firms Hiring Legislators
Friday, February 16, 2007
RICHMOND -- The organization charged with regulating Virginia attorneys is pushing to erase an ethics rule that for a half-century has prohibited the state's legislators from being employed alongside lobbyists at the commonwealth's largest law firms.
The change, proposed by the Virginia State Bar's standing committee on legal ethics, could spark a bidding war among Richmond's leading law firms, which would be free to hire the speaker of the House of Delegates or the Senate floor leader even as their lobbyists prowl the halls of the General Assembly.
That has outraged some in the legislature, who say the move would create dangerous conflicts of interest for the lawmakers and the lobbyists. And they say it adds to a perception that the General Assembly is a good old boys' club where deals are cut behind closed doors instead of in public committee rooms.
"Crossing that line threatens the integrity of the General Assembly," said Clarke N. Hogan (R-Charlotte). "There are all kinds of unpleasant, undesirable effects. This will undermine public trust. I don't think you can do that."
Virginia's existing rule is stronger than in many states, where sitting lawmakers and lobbyists are often allowed to work in the same law firm, according to state bar officials. Arizona, Illinois, Washington and New Hampshire permit the practice, officials said. At least nine other bar associations prohibit firms from having both lobbyists and sitting lawmakers. Maryland does not have any such prohibition, but the state imposes certain restrictions on lawmakers who work for firms with lobbying arms.
Pressure to eliminate the rule in Virginia was sparked in part by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who recently joined the law firm of Hirschler Fleischer P.C., a Richmond-based firm with a small lobbying presence. Without the proposed change, Deeds would be violating state ethics rules.
Deeds, who describes himself as a small-town rural lawyer, said his losing bid for attorney general in 2005 made it nearly impossible to keep his small practice alive. His plans to run for governor in 2009 will require a more stable income, he said. But he said there will be a firewall between himself and the firm's lobbyists.
"For me to be able to continue the political journey, I had to find some stability. I had to do something," Deeds said in an interview this week. "If I thought I were doing anything unethical, I would step away from it."
Deeds and other advocates of the rule change, including the chief ethics counsel for the bar, say the long-standing rule needlessly restricts the activities of law firms and lawmakers. They say lobbyists and sitting legislators can coexist at firms as long as they adhere to existing state laws governing conflict of interest.
Those laws require lawmakers to recuse themselves from votes or discussions involving lobbyists with whom they have a professional relationship.
"Lawyers have a contribution to make and ought not to be disenfranchised from public service by a bright line rule that assumes [a conflict], without any evidence, because of my partner in an 800-lawyer law firm," said James M. McCauley, the bar's ethics counsel.
Legal Ethics Opinion 1829, which McCauley's committee made public Jan. 23, states that any legislator should simply "be careful to avoid using his public position for improper special advantage for clients, and the other members of the firm must be careful to avoid suggesting that they have special influence for clients through the legislative service of their firm member."