This is the story of how two people with an armload of questions managed to torpedo a bill considered a shooin by most of Virginia's 140 legislators.
Along the way, the controversy stirred up by delegates Thomas J. Michie Jr. (D-Charlottesville) and Mary Sue Terry (D-Patrick), had officials at George Mason University worried that their fledgling law school would fail to win accreditation, the university's president was insulted by perceived slights to his integrity and one of the scolls's major benefactors was almost ready to wash his hands of the whole mess.
It all came about because law school fathers were not ready to say where they wanted to place a parking lot.
In the end, Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) withdrew a proposal that would have given the university five years to decide the parking lot question and, more importantly, would have delayed a plan to turn over the law school building and parking lot land this year.
"It's a shame," said Brault of the legislative squabbles that eventually focused on how to fund the law school, adding that the process of conveying the land to the state already has begun. The result of the stalemate, Brault said, is that the university stands to lose a significant portion of income in the coming years.
"I certainly hope it was a misunderstanding," Brault said, "since I wouldn't say that anybody was trying to kill the law school."
The dispute began several weeks ago when Brault introduced a bill to delay the transfer of the law school building to the state. The delay, said officials of the nonprofit George Mason Foundation, one of the major financial backers of the school, would have given them time to plan the land's development in a way that would bring in the greatest possible income for the university.
Last year, foundation officials promised the state a choice, 11-acre site near Arlington's Virginia Square Metro stop as a condition for approval of the law school. Currently valued at $12 million, the land could generate more than $2 million a year in revenue for the law school, foundation officials say, if it is properly developed.
Part of that 11 acres, on Fairfax Drive in Arlington, includes the building where law school classes are held. In addition, part of the land was to be used for a law school parking lot. The remainder was to be available for development, with revenues from the development earmarked for George Mason and its law school.
As part of the original legislation creating the law school, the building and parking area were to be turned over to the state before any diplomas are awarded this year.
John T. Hazel, an influential Northern Virginia developer and a key member of the foundation, fought against this year's deadline, arguing that carving out a parking lot before coming up with a long-range development plan for the entire 11 acres could damage the potential of a "gold mine" in a rapidly changing area.
"I don't have any idea where to put it," Hazel said last week. "We can't cope with the site on any kind of intelligent basis without work. It would be totally premature to make those kinds of decisions before we find out what kind of impact Metro and i-66 will have."
Members of the state Senate bought Hazel's reasoning and approved the legislation with a hitch. But the proposal stalled in a House education sub-committee for two weeks and finally died, even though it faced no real opposition in the full Education Committee or on the House floor.
The hornet's nest of controversy was stirred up when subcommittee members Michie and Terry insisted that the bill include specific language outlining last year's agreement between the General Assembly and the law school foundation about funding of the school.
There was only one problem, which turned out to be the straw that broke the bill's back. Subcommittee members couldn't agree on what they had agreed to last year, even though Hazel outlined the terms in a letter to Michie.
Michie and Terry contended that Hazel's letter carried a foundation pledge to spend at least 50 percent of the income from the land development on the law school's operating expenses, with the rest going for other university needs. The other two subcommittee members, delegates Dorothy McDiarmid (D-Arlington) and David G. Speck (R-Alexandria), countered that they understood the first 50 percent of income would be used for endowment purposes to improve the law school standing.
Michie and Terry, however, argued that the income should be used to defray some of the law school's day-to-day costs, thus lessening the financial burden the state would have to carry.
Some aides to area legislators favorable to the law school argued that Terry and Michie raised the host of sticky questions because they were opposed to the law school from the beginning. Both delegates, however, maintained they were interested only in making sure the state was getting the most for its education dollar.
GMU President George Johnson, alarmed by the legislative wrangling, came to Richmond last week with the message that an amendment like the one urged by Terry could cost the law school its accreditation. The American Bar Association recently delayed a decision on the accreditation, Johnson said, and there was a strong indication that the school's funding mechanism was the primary reason.
"There is no question," Johnson said, that the school would face problems winning accreditation if profits were earmarked for operating costs since that might lead the state to reduce its usual guarantee of 70 percent of the per pupil funding for the school.
"I don't think I anticipated these questions of good faith or the reopening of policy questions that were decided last year," Johnson said after the meeting, obviously bristling at what he saw as suspicions that the foundation might be trying to stall the Assembly for its own financial gain.
"It should be clear to everyone that we have total dedication and commitment to bringing quality education to our students," Johnson said. "What possible reasons could we have for stalling? The sole purpose of the foundation is to donate money to the university."
Hazel, meantime, said he was "plain damn mad" at the efforts by Terry and Michie.
"You carry these things on your back for years trying to make things happen," he said, "and then when it starts to happen you get shot at by people who think you're a crook. They know damn well I have no motive in mind but to create a better institution."
Dorothy McDiarmid, one of the Northern Virginia lawmakers who has tried to navigate the law school plan through the rough waters of the General Assembly since it was introduced last year, was philosophical about the battle and eventual loss.
"I'm continually reminded that communication is one of the most difficult things in the world," said a weary McDiarmid. "It's certainly one of the most difficult things we do here."