Case No. 1 - A Virginia state senator asks for his freedom-of-information bill to be killed after it is amended to cover coal-mine blasting reports. During his 1975 campaign, the Senator had received $500 from a major coal-mine operator.
Case No. 2 - A delegate whose father breeds racehorses sponsors a bill to legalize pari-mutuel betting in Virginia.
Case No. 3 - A senator who is a major landlord to the Fairfax County government in Fairfax City asks a delegate to introduce a bill that could make it more difficult for the county to shift the county seat from the city.
Case No. 4 - A delegate who owns an automobile dealership introduces several bills that would directly benefit, in minor ways, dealerships in the state, including his own.
To what extent, if any, do these cases, all of which occured during this General Assembly session, represent a potential conflict of interest?
The legislators involved say they see no conflict. Most other legislators interviewed see no problem, except in the last case, which involved Del. Earl E. Bell (D-Loudoun). But even in Bell's case, most of his colleagues make less-than-harsh judgments.
"I don't think there was anything venal about it," said one legislator.
Perhaps predictably, the legislators say the answer to the question of what is a conflict is not always an easy one. Should lawyer-legislators, for example, refuse to sponser or vote on measures affecting criminal justice or any of the other areas that their practice may involve?
"If lawyers drew the line that drastically," said one legislator who is not an attorney, "they wouldn't be able to vote on most of the bills that come before them."
Occasionally, though, there is an issue where lawyer-legislators meke sharply divided judgments. For example, the House recently took up, and passed, a bill that defined what constituted the practice of law. Because the bill appeared to give lawyers a monopoly in some areas, such as title searching, some lawyer-legislators voted against it or abstained, but many more voted for it. (The bill died quietly in a Senate committee).
The General Assembly's standards of conduct, because they give the legislators wide latitude, don't provide much of a guide. For example, the state code says that one of the purposes of the standards is "to affirm the right of members to introduce, debate and vote on legislation with which they are particularly familiar because of their employment, background and occupation unless a member should determine in his own discretion that such action involves self-interest or a conflict of interest."
It was individual descretion that each of the legislators used in the four cases cited above.
The senator who repudiated his own bill after it had been amended was James T. Edmunds (D-Lunenburg). One of the major contributions in his 1975 campaign - $500 - was Edsel H. (Jack) Lester, who owns coal mines and related trucking interests near Grundy in Southwest Virginia, far beyond Edmunds' senatorial district southwest of Richmond.
Edmunds said he decided to fight his amended bill because coal operators, who were opposed to blasting records being made public, hadn't been given an opportunity to present their case fully in the General Assembly.
Blasting records are a controversial issue because they include complaints from residents claiming property damage caused by dynamiting.
The author of the pari-mutuel bill, Del. Raymond R. Guest Jr. (R-Warren), said he sees no conflict between hsi sponsorship of the measure and hsi father's background in racehorse breeding.
"Nothing in the bill would benefit me or my family uniquely," said Guest, who himself raises beef cattle
Case No. 3 involved Senate Majorer's farm in Warren County.
Under the bill, Guest's father, a wealthy former state senator and ambassador to Ireland whose farm is in Powhatan County, would, if his horses won at Virginia tracks, receive benefits from a breeders fund. But so would other Virginia breeders whose horses won races, Del. Guest points out.
Payments from the fund would range up to an estimated $1,000 per winning race. The purpose of the fund, similar to one in Maryland, Guest says, would be to encourage Virginia breeders to stay in the state.
Though the pari-mutuel bill has been hotly debated - it has passed the House and is before a Senate committee - no one has publicly accused Guest of a conflict of interest. But some critics of the bill have whisphered about Guest's family background in breeding.
Guest says the bill "is of great interest to a large number of my constituents." He said he was asked to sponsor the bill by the breeding industry, a large part of which is located in his district (Frederick, Clarke, Fauquier and Warren counties).
Del. Elise B. Heinz (D-Arlinton), who voted against the pari-mutuel bill, is not troubled by Guest's family background in breeding. "He comes from that kind of environment," she said. "I would expect him to sponsor such legislation."
Other delegates, including opponents of the Guest bill, said a delegate has the right to serve the interests of his constituency.
Case No. 3 involved Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), who asked the delegate serving his district, Raymond E. Vickery Jr. (D-Fairfax), to introduce a bill that would permit Fairfax City and Falls Church to vote on any referendum Fairfax County might hold on whether to build the new courthouse in the city, as now planned, or move it to a roomier location in the county, along with the rest of the governmental complex. Presumably city voters would be heavily opposed to such a move and could be a crucial factor in a close vote.
If the county seat were moved from the city, Brault would lose the biggest tenant in the Fairfax Building, of which he is one of the owning partners. But he says he opposes such a move because he believes it would be costly to the county. All the same, he said, he would abstain on all votes on the bill to avoid any potential conflict.
Vickery described Brault as "one of my constituents."
Del. Earl E. Bell (D-Loudoun) thought that by abstaining on his car-dealer bills he, too, would avoid any potential conflict of interest (he is a dealer in Loudoun). "But I got some bad advice," he said after a newspaper article with a headline that said: "Auto Dealer in House Pushes Aid for Own Business."
Among the bills he introduced was one that would permit dealers to buy two sets of plates for company-owned cars without paying the 2 percent titling tax. These plates would be in tags that do not require a titling tax.
Bell said he introduced the bill at the request of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, of which he is a member. An association spokesman said Bell had no role in drafting the legislation.
The clause in the bill that would permit dealers to buy two extra sets of plates for new cars in their inventory was eliminated in Senate committee. One critic said a dealer could put the plates on a car and then let his daughter drive it to college.
The association spokesman said "there is a potential for abuse . . . But a dealer who is paying $600 or $700 annually in finance charges on a car in inventory is going to try to sell the car - he's not going to let his daughter drive it to college."
Bell, stung by the newspaper article, said he doesn't think he'll introduce any more such bills, and the association spokesman said, "We'll certainly not put him in that position again."
In contrast to Bell (before he decided to swear off sponsoring car-dealer legislation in the future), Del. George P. Beard Jr. (R-Culpeper), a newcomer, said "I would never sponsor a banking bill." Beard is a banker and first vice president of the Virginia Bankers Association.
When the House voted to approve a bill permitting limited branch banking - a measure supported by the bankers association - Beard abstained - an action that was followed by some other delegates with banking connections. But, Del. William T. Wilson (D-Covington), who is a principal in efforts to establish a new bank in Covington, voted against the bill, which could bring additional competition to his bank-to-be.
Wilson, like some other delegates, said branch banking could permit big, expansion-minded banks to drive smaller institutions like the one he is trying to get started out of business.
To Jack Austin, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, the problem of conflicts in the General Assembly centers mostly on the sensitivity of the legislators to appearances.
Only recently, Austin said, have the legislators been subjected to the kind of scrutiny by public groups and the news media that has been more common in other areas of the country. Unaccustomed to such scrutiny, he said, legislators still too aften get involved sponsoring or supporting legislation which they may genuinely think is meritorious but at the same time favorably affects their business or profession.
But no matter how much scrutiny there is, the problem is not likely to go away, says Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington). "The trouble with whole thing," he said, "is that we are part-time, citizen legislators. We feed our family with what do at home, not with what we make down here.