The meeting was billed as the first-ever investigation by Virginia lawmakers into alleged conflict of interest by one of their colleagues.
Today's State Senate subcommittee hearing into the conduct of Sen. Willard J. Moody (D-Portsmouth) had no prosecutor, no charges and no witnesses to testify against the powerful chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. The only people to testify during the four-hour closed-door session were Moody and a group of his business and political supporters from Portsmouth, who praised his legislative record.
The probe of the allegations against Moody sets the stage for Thursday's subcommittee investigation into reports that State Sen. Nathan H. Miller, unsuccessful Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, used his legislative office to benefit clients of his Harrisonburg law firm.
Since Miller's defeat and the recent resignation of three state highway commissioners for violations of the state's weak and confusing conflict of interest law, conflict has become a sensitive political issue for legislators, some of whom are fearful of opening a Pandora's Box of allegations..
Some senators raised questions about whether the senate should be investigating Moody at all. Moody, a 57-year-old Tidewater lawyer, twice has been embroiled in controversies for allegedly using his legislative clout to help his private law practice.
In 1977, Moody introduced a bill that made moot a Virginia Supreme Court decision against one of his law firm's clients. In 1979, he actively opposed a bill that also was opposed by a union whose members bring Moody's law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal business each year.
"How can they discipline him when there aren't even any charges against him?" asked Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond). "There was no conflict--no conflict at all. I could show you 500 bills that smelled more than his did."
Testifying before the bipartisan five-man committee, Moody presented a 24-page rebuttal to published reports about the two incidents. "No conflict should have prohibited me from taking part in these two legislative matters," Moody said in his statement. "The actions I took with respect to these two matters were proper when taken and would be proper in the future."
After the lengthy subcommittee session, Moody said it "went right well."
"I do feel I've had a bum rap," he said. Moody said he was not involved in a conflict in either case because his firm's client never asked him to introduce a bill to offset the court decision and because he did not represent the union which opposed the bill, only some of its members.
Early in the subcommittee hearing, Moody asked that the meeting be conducted in public, but the panel overruled his request. "I'm sure you will have an opportunity when this matter comes before the full committee to state your views publicly," said subcommittee chairman Sen. Howard Anderson (D-Halifax).
Chan Kendrick, director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, raised immediate objection to the panel's decision to close the meeting and its failure to post a public notice in advance of the session.
"The committee's action is just reprehensible," Kendrick said. "It makes a mockery of the law, and of the spirit of the law, for them to be ignoring the public's right to know and preventing interested parties from having any access to the proceedings."
While Moody was testifying in a nearly empty senate hearing room, a cadre of influential Portsmouth citizens waited in the marble hallway outside to testify on his behalf. Among them were Robert E. Porterfield, chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce; James W. Holly III, the highest-ranking black politician in Portsmouth; A. James Fillion, chairman of the Portsmouth Democratic party, and Milton Phillips, president of Portsmouth's downtown business association.
"Sen. Moody has represented our community for a long, long time, and we wanted to show him that he's not standing alone up here," said Porterfield, after appearing before the panel. "He was serving the needs of his constituents. He hasn't deserted us, and we're not going to desert him."
Moody's Portsmouth district is heavily Democratic and pro-labor.