Gov. John N. Dalton today blamed the second forced resignation in a month from Virginia's powerful highway commission on overly stringent requirements in the state's conflict-of-interest act and said members of other state boards may also be inadvertently violating the law.
"The language is so detailed that I think people can get caught in a web without realizing what's happening to them," said Dalton in an interview a day after he announced the resignation of Commissioner T. Ray Hassell III.
State Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman's office reported to Dalton that Hassell had violated the law by failing to disclose that his Portsmouth engineering and surverying firm had accepted contracts from four state-chartered agencies in the Tidewater area.
"It's not just the highway commission . . . . Anybody who serves on any board in the state is subject to this," said Dalton, who said he would consider proposing major changes in the conflict law. "I just wonder how many people we have all over the state with this problem."
Dalton also said the law was "depriving us of good people to serve on boards and commissions." He said he had been forced to reject two capable candidates for Northern Virginia highway commissioner because they are members of brokerage firms that would then be denied the chance to underwrite bonds on state highway projects.
The Northern Virginia slot is open because three weeks ago, Dalton ousted William B. Wrench, Northern Virginia's highway commissioner, after Wrench proposed and voted for a route for the planned Springfield Bypass in Fairfax County that would have run near three parcels of his property.
Although Dalton and Coleman refused to release Coleman's report on Hassell, the governor said today the commissioner was guilty of only a technical violation. "I'm convinced, just as convinced as I can be, that he didn't do anything willful."
Dalton denied Hassell's complaint that he was forced out, but said the commissioner was placed in the position of either terminating his public contracts or resigning from the commission -- and chose to resign.
Hassell allegedly violated the section of the law requiring state board members to disclose in advance to their board any contracts they seek with other public agencies. They also must inform the agencies of their positions on a state board.
Dalton's comments came in an interview in which he said recent Republican polls show Coleman, the GOP nominee for governor, to be gaining on his Democratic opponent Charles S. Robb. Dalton would not reveal the spread between the candidates, but other Republican officials said the poll shows Coleman within five points of Robb, about half the difference that newspaper polls reported three weeks ago.
Dalton compared Coleman's current standing with his own four years earlier and said he was confident that Coleman would overtake Robb by election day. Republicans, the governor noted, traditionally have begun behind in their races in Virginia, but usually gain sharply in the final days of a campaign.