As a junior legislator, Virginia state Sen. Elliot S. Schewel caused an uproar by publicly accusing a senior Democrat of ethical misconduct. It gave the gentle, soft-spoken Schewel a reputation as a whistle blower, but he quickly became a pariah in the Senate.
Shunned by many of the legislature's members and resented by others, Democrat Schewel watched with dismay as his bills were sandbagged on the Senate floor. Even noncontroversial measures, such as one to allow a television tower in his hometown of Lynchburg, ran into trouble.
"You have to be careful not to lapse into paranoia," says Schewel, a well-to-do furniture store dealer. "But the consequences were severe. What I did alienated me from many in the power structure here."
These days, Schewel is reluctant to talk about his ordeal, saying it is better to put the whole matter behind him. But the personal price he paid for daring to raise conflict-of-interest charges against a fellow senator is one reason why there is widespread skepticism surrounding the Virginia General Assembly's current infatuation with ethical reform.
Still reeling from the disclosures that sank Sen. Nathan H. Miller, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, the legislature is now awash in a sea of conflict-of-interest bills. At least a dozen had been introduced before last week's filing deadline--bills to tighten financial disclosure laws, to create ethics commissions, to restrict lawyer-legislators who practice before state agencies, and, of course, a bill to create a commission to study the problem. Legislators, particularly in the Senate, talk about a "new sensitivity" to the conflict issue that they never had before.
"If ever an ethics bill were going to pass the General Assembly, it's going to be this year," said Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax).
But as Saslaw and others point out, the issue is hardly a new one and the new consciousness over ethics is hardly universal. Virginia, according to a study by the National Municipal League, has among the weakest, loophole-ridden ethics laws in the country.
Legislators are not required to disclose the value of their financial holdings or identify them other than by broad categories. They are not required to report speaking fees or free trips to holiday resorts that are paid for by special interest groups. There is no restriction on legislators who practice before state agencies and then introduce bills or serve on committees governing those agencies. There is no ethics committee to police their conduct.
In a related area, there is no restriction on how much money they can accept from corporations, labor unions or other political action committees.
As a result of these loopholes, conflicts--real and potential--abound. Last week the House Corporations, Banking and Insurance Committee routinely approved a bill that expanded the kinds of loans a savings and loan association can make to its directors and employes. Among those voting for the bill were Dels. Alson Smith (D-Winchester), a director with a $30,000 stock interest in Old Dominion Savings and Loan in Winchester, and Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax), a vice president and director of McLean Savings and Loan.
"That wasn't a conflict," Callahan said later. "If I put in a bill for the special relief of McLean Savings and Loan, that would be a conflict."
Meanwhile, Del. Warren Barry (R-Fairfax), who is part owner of three Amoco and two Exxon stations in Fairfax and Arlington, introduced a bill to cancel this July's 2 percent scheduled increase in the Northern Virginia gasoline tax to fund Metro.
"I had the bill drafted with the idea of having somebody else introduce it for me," explained Barry. "But I thought rather than beating around the bush, it would be better to do it up front. I know there is a conflict of interest to a degree. But how can you be a businessmen without having some degree of conflict?"
The argument that conflicts are inevitable in a part-time, citizen legislature, where lawmakers earn $8,000 for one to two months' work, has been a recurring theme in the state's conflict-of-interest battles. Beneath those arguments, many say, is a fundamental distaste for ethics issues that is rooted in a peculiarly Virginian mix of gentlemanly honor and political cynicism.
"When the legislature first had to fill out financial disclosure forms in the 1970s, the results were ludicrous," recalls Judy Goldberg, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union who used to work for Common Cause of Virginia. "Under financial interests, they would put things down like 'stocks' or 'farms.' Nothing about what kind or how much. Many of them were illegible."
When Common Cause began its push to tighten the disclosure requirements, it was met with a brick wall of resistance. "There was always the feeling that Common Cause was insulting the legislature by even suggesting the possibility of conflict of interest," Goldberg added. "Generally, the response was: 'Things like that don't happen in Virginia. We're not Maryland.' "
It was an attitude that had to be modified by 1979 when Schewel made what he calls his "agonizing" decision to go public with his accusations against Sen. Willard Moody (D-Portsmouth), the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, over a bill to lift the state requirement that all trains carry cabooses.
In what was quickly dubbed the "caboose bill conflict," Moody used his influence to kill a caboose bill that was being opposed by a railroad union whose members brought Moody's law firm more than $500,000 in legal business each year. Senate rules prohibit members from voting on matters in which they have "an immediate, private or personal interest" but allow the individual senator to decide when to abstain from voting.
The Moody revelations were followed by last summer's disclosure that Miller had received at least $250,000 in legal fees from the state's electrical cooperatives while drafting and then voting for bills that gave the co-ops $13.2 million in tax breaks and other business advantages. A special Senate subcommittee set up to investigate both cases last month chastised Miller for "poor judgment" but concluded that Moody had not violated Senate rules or conflict-of-interest laws. Miller and Moody are now sponsors of their own ethics bills.
Athough the Senate is expected to pass at least one bill, introduced by Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), calling for more disclosure, its prospects are uncertain at best in the House.
"Brault's bill is not very meaningful," Schewel says sadly. "But a lot of people will vote for it just so they can say to the folks back home, 'I voted to strengthen the conflict-of-interest laws.' "
"They're cynical," he says, speaking of his colleagues. "Their consciousness has been raised, not in terms of the moral implications of the question, but to the extent that they think they better be careful, otherwise they're going to get caught."