Virginia General Assembly goes slow on tough ethics reform

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 2010; B01

RICHMOND -- The federal investigation into one of Virginia's most powerful legislators prompted a flurry of proposals this year to prevent a similar ethical lapse. But even lawmakers acknowledge that the bills passed by the General Assembly this week might not do much to halt the questionable behavior that some of their colleagues have engaged in.

The legislation would not prohibit lawmakers from being employed by the state or representing their clients before state agencies. It would not forbid their spouses to lobby the General Assembly. It would not change Virginia's limitless-campaign-contribution laws.

And it would probably not have stopped then-Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News) from seeking a job at Old Dominion University while securing money for the school as one of the legislature's dozen budget negotiators.

"It's not been something they want to mess with if they don't have to," said Alan Rosenthal, a public policy professor at Rutgers University who monitors ethics reform in state legislatures across the nation. "Most legislators think they are honest. They think most of their colleagues are honest."

Several bills did not pass. Most that did deal less with an individual lawmaker's initial actions than with the subsequent release of information in annual reports and investigations if there is an allegation of misconduct.

State Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk), one of the sponsors, described the changes as "nothing major" but argued that transparency can be a deterrent for wrongdoing.

Del. Robin A. Abbott (D-Newport News), who defeated Hamilton after campaigning in part on ethics reform, acknowledged that she proposed only modest changes because she said she wanted them to get through the legislature easily. But even some of those bills failed.

"If everyone is afraid of reform, it raises the horrible question, 'What are you afraid of?' " she said. "They thought we were moving a little bit too quickly. That was just another excuse."

Still, the bills that were approved mark some of the first changes to the General Assembly's conflict-of-interest statute in more than two decades.

The main bill that passed would require a legislative panel to hold its meetings in public once its investigation has moved beyond a preliminary phase and to continue even if a legislator resigns from office. Hamilton lost his bid for reelection in November and resigned before his term had concluded, ending the House of Delegates investigation into his conduct. A federal grand jury in November served the House with a subpoena for documents in the case.

Much of the opposition to the bills was from those who said they were worried the changes would lead them to be exposed to unfair political attacks.

"I don't think anyone here questions we need some changes," state Sen. Frederick M. Quayle (R-Chesapeake) said during debate on the Senate floor this week. "This has some minefields in it -- the provisions in this bill make it possible for some political mischief to occur immediately prior to an election. While I agree we need some changes in these rules, I don't think this is the one."

Another bill, sponsored by Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland), would require legislators to disclose salaries greater than $10,000 from state or local government.

Legislators are now exempt from reporting that information on annual reports. Hamilton disclosed his $40,000 Old Dominion University income, but others lawmakers have not reported salaries, particularly from universities.

None of the bills would keep lawmakers from working for the state or representing clients in front of state agencies.

Almost a dozen now do that kind of representation at agencies, including the State Corporation Commission, the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Board and the Department of Motor Vehicles, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who campaigned last year on more transparency in government, has said he will sign the bills.

A slew of other ethics proposals were killed, including those that would have banned gifts worth more than $100, created a panel to review legislators' statement of economic interest forms annually and increased how much information lobbyists must disclose to the state, such as which specific bills they have lobbied upon.

Del. C.L. "Clay" Athey Jr. (R-Warren) said the General Assembly was unnecessarily rushing to make changes after Hamilton's case.

"We move deliberately in Virginia," he said. "We don't move quickly. We don't base our decisions on emotion."

Legislators did agree to forbid anyone bidding on a state contract worth more than $5 million from making contributions to the governor after the bid is made, but only after they amended the bill to exclude themselves from the requirement.

And they killed a bill that would have prohibited legislators from serving as commissioner of accounts -- though currently only one, state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), has the part-time job as an attorney for the courts, paying $120,000 last year.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry), who sponsored some of the proposals that passed, said he was disappointed the reforms did not go as far as he had hoped. For example, his original bill deemed legislators in violation of ethics rules if they knew or should have known that their actions were in violation of ethical standards. But he said he was pleased that the legislature passed some measures.

"It is important our citizens have faith in an open and honest government," he said. "As legislators, we are here to represent the people's interests, not our own interests."

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