The Virginia highway commissioner who resigned under pressure this week because he held contracts with other state agencies had said in a disclosure statement in June that he performed no state business during the past year.
T. Ray Hassell III, a land surveyor and landowner from Chesapeake, resigned after Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman ruled that he had violated the state conflict-of-interest law by failing to disclose contracts he held with several state agencies. Hassell said after resigning that he did not know he was supposed to inform the highway department of his contracts with the Virginia Port Authority and others.
In his June disclosure statement, however, Hassell answered "None" to a question about business with "any state governmental agency" worth more than $1,000. He said Tuesday that his firm, Hassell & Folkes, received less than $100,000 in fees from the port authority and three other state-created authorities in the Tidewater region.
Hassell said in an interview today that he did not recall that question on the disclosure form, but he reiterated that he never intended to break any law. "Up until recent times I just didn't give that much thought about it," he said. "I had my own definition of conflict of interest: that I shouldn't contract with the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation to do any road jobs."
Hassell was the second state highway commissioner in less than a month to resign because of conflict of interest charges, and only the third in the history of the board. Northern Virginia Commissioner William B. Wrench resigned in September after disclosures that he recommended and voted for a Springfield Bypass route that would benefit properties he owns in Fairfax County.
The eight remaining state highway commissioners attended a private workshop today with lawyers from Coleman's office. According to one who attended, they received a lecture on the importance of the conflict-of-interest law and the need to respect it even when they think it doesn't make sense.
Harold C. King, Virginia's top highway administrator, said several of the commissioners asked questions about their holdings in relation to the law. King said he did not believe from the questions that any other commissioners are violating the law, and he said none are under investigation.
"They're all successful businessmen for the most part who give of their time," King said. "I think all of them are entitled to know what the law really is so they can put their house in order."
Several commissioners said they believed Hassell and Wrench were both guilty of "technicalities" and victims of an unfair law. Their criticisms echoed those of Gov. John N. Dalton, who yesterday complained the law was too restrictive and hampered qualified businessmen serving on state boards.
Alexandria Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr., one of the members of the legislative commission that drew the law in 1970, noted today that then-state Del. Dalton had himself sat on the panel. Mitchell, a Republican, defended the law as precisely written and fair.
The commissioners did not refer to the two empty chairs at their table during their monthly session this morning. They elected without comment a new secretary to replace Hassell, who with 7 1/2 years tenure had been the commission's most senior member.
The new secretary, Charles S. Hooper Jr., did not seem upset by the turmoil. At one point he recommended approval for a road improvement project at Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion Drive in McLean. "Since we do not have a commissioner from the area, and I certainly don't own any property up there, I'm going to make the motion," he said.