Campaign officials for J. Marshall Coleman, Republican candidate for Virginia governor, said yesterday they will return a $1,100 contribution from Northern Virginia's representative to the state highway commission to avoid "any appearance of a conflict of interest."
Coleman, who is Virginia's attorney general, is investigating the possibility that Commissioner William B. Wrench violated state conflict-of-interest laws when he recently voted for a controversial rerouting of the Springfield Bypass, a proposed major Fairfax County highway.
Democrats had said Coleman should appoint a special prosecutor, arguing that Coleman could not conduct an independent investigation of Wrench, a member of his campaign finance committee.
In a highway commission meeting last month, Wrench recommended and voted for a rerouting of the proposed $200 million bypass that would bring the cross-county highway close to three pieces of land he owns. He informed state Highway Commissioner Harold C. King of two of his holdings in a letter in which he also declared his intention to vote.
Wrench, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, said his vote was not a conflict of interest. Coleman, who had scheduled a press conference for this morning to announce the results of his inquiry, canceled that conference yesterday, saying he needed more time to study the findings.
The highway rerouting, which changed about 10 miles of the 35-mile route proposed by county officials, also places half of an interstate cloverleaf on a 387-acre tract owned by Wrench's lawyer, Fairfax developer John T. (Til) Hazel Jr., and Milton V. Peterson, both members of Coleman's finance committee.
Coleman's campaign manager, Anson B. Franklin, said $4,650 in contributions from Hazel and his wife would not be returned because Hazel is not "at issue in this inquiry."
A spokesman for Coleman's opponent, Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, applauded the attorney general for returning Wrench's money, but said a potential conflict still exists.
"We sincerely hope the attorney general will carefully examine all of his contributions to make sure that not only the contributions of those directly involved are returned but that the contributions of those indirectly involved are returned also," said David Doak, Robb's campaign manager. Doak would not say which contributors he was referring to.
Three months before the commission meeting, Gov. John N. Dalton summoned Hazel, Wrench and King to a private meeting in his office at which Dalton ordered highway officials to comply with Hazel's repeated requests that a final route be chosen, after more than five years of study and debate.
"Never, never did we talk about the location of the interchange," said Hazel. "It would have been absolutely ridiculous to talk routes. To get into the engineering decision of the road is something Dalton doesn't know anything about and I don't know anything about."
Six months before the meeting in Dalton's office, Hazel said, he began writing letters to highway officials urging them to chose a route for the highway. "I just wanted the damned thing either dropped or located," said Hazel, who said he wanted to avoid building anything in the path of a future highway.
Hazel, who with Peterson owns hundreds of acres along both the proposed state and county routes, said he grew impatient with the officials' response, which he characterized as a cross "between a joke and a bureaucratic disaster." King could not be reached for comment yesterday.
On April 6, Hazel sent a scathing letter to King -- with a copy to Dalton -- saying that "excuses and explanations are not an adequate substitute for performance." Shortly after he received the letter, Dalton arranged the meeting that Wrench also attended.
A spokesman for Dalton said the meeting, which Fairfax officials said yesterday they had no knowledge of, was Dalton's only involvement in the highway decision-making. Dalton had pledged to support the construction of the road during his 1977 campaign.
Wrench and Hazel both contributed to that reelection effort. Wrench contributed $2,000 and Hazel $2,500, according to state legislative records. Hazel's partner, Peterson, contributed $4,500; Hazel's brother, William A. Hazel, contributed $6,000 and William Hazel's firm gave $5,000 to Dalton's campaign, those records show.