Conflict-of-interest charges against two influential Virginia officeholders have focused new attention on the state's weak conflict laws, but many politicians doubt the recent disclosures will prompt the legislature to act on a matter it has long avoided.
"Nobody should be optimistic about the General Assembly in regard to improving the conflict-of-interest law," said Arthur Cecelski, chairman of Virginia Common Cause. "They've been killing conflict-of-interest bills for the last six years."
In a state where government officials pride themselves on their integrity, many were shocked when it was disclosed last week that State Highway Commissioner William B. Wrench, a campaign supporter of Republican gubernatorial candidate J. Marshall Coleman, had recommended and voted for a Springfield Bypass route that would increase the value of his private land holdings. An investigation by Coleman found Wrench in violation of the spirit, although not the letter, of the Virginia statute, and Wrench resigned last Friday.
Earlier, the GOP's lieutenant governor candidate, State Sen. Nathan H. Miller, had admitted being in an "apparent conflict of interest" for promoting legislation that benefited his legal clients and accepting $250,000 in legal fees for his work. Miller denies that he is guilty of a conflict.
Legislative promoters of stiffer conflict laws now say they are willing to press the subject before the General Assembly again next spring, but make no predictions about the outcome. "We seem to be having things happen from time to time that stir up a lot of feeling about conflict of interest but when all the dust has settled, our bills seem to stub their toe somewhere," said Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax).
"We've just got a group of people who believe that state government has always been pure and holy, and that it's a reflection on our integrity if we change the law," Brault said.
Questions about public officeholders using their posts for private gain have long been debated in the Democrat-controlled Virginia General Assembly, but the body has always returned to a loosely drawn set of standards allowing its 140 members to make their own decisions about the propriety of their actions. State law governing the actions of political appointees is not much stronger.
"There are people in the General Assembly who don't like ethics legislation, and people who don't think it works," said Sen. Edward M. Holland (D-Arlington). "And then there are people who prefer to allow room for themselves and their friends to operate."
It has been the statehouse Democrats who have been most widely criticized in past years for allegedly using their posts to benefit themselves and their clients. But it is the Democrats who seem to be reaping the benefits of the most recent controversy.
Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, the Democratic candidate for governor, roundly criticized Coleman last week for "ignoring a conflict of interest in the Wrench case so recognizable to everyone else." Former Portsmouth mayor Richard J. Davis, the Democratic lieutenant governor candidate, demanded an investigation into Miller's actions, charging that Coleman's failure to launch a probe amounted to "allowing political fortunes to dictate the legal system in Virginia."
The Republicans have denied that the conflict question has had any adverse influence on their nominees' candidacies, and some suggest that it may even have boosted their chances.
"This entire campaign has been one of charges, countercharges and personal criticism, and the people of Virginia have never bought that kind of campaign in the past," said Shenandoah Del. Clinton Miller (R), who is not related to the lieutenant governor candidate. "And I think there could be some counteraction to the extent that people may be critical of the people who are being critical."