he Virginia House of Delegates turned aside efforts today to strengthen a controversial conflict-of-interest measure, approving a bill that one of its supporters described as "fairly weak."
Voting 81 to 14 after a two-hour debate, members of the House accepted a bill bereft of key sections aimed at discouraging legislators from using their public offices to benefit themselves and their clients.
By close voice votes, the delegates rejected several attempts to strengthen the measure. They killed amendments that would have created an independent legislative ethics commission and required that lawyer-legislators disclose whether any of their legal clients engaged in lobbying the General Assembly.
A less comprehensive amendment, offering a mild strengthening of current legislative disclosure requirements, was approved on a vote of 61 to 32. The amended measure now goes to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.
"I am a little frustrated," said Del. Samuel Glasscock (D-Suffolk), who offered two of the strengthening amendments. "This is a very important issue, one we need to address in a serious, competent fashion."
Today's House action was only the latest in a string of setbacks for conflict-of-interest legislation in Virginia, whose ethics rules have been ranked by a national municipal organization as among the weakest in the nation. Many legislators called for ethics law changes last fall after state Sen. Nathan H. Miller (R-Rockingham) lost the lieutenant governor's race under a cloud of conflict-of-interest allegations. Today those calls seemed to have faded long ago.
Del. Theodore V. Morrison (D-Newport News) led the effort to weaken the bill today, arguing that the measure proposed by Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) would effectively prohibit legislators from voting on most of the bills they consider.
Morrison said the voters--not the law--should have the final say in determining whether legislators have abused their public positions. "If a person wants to be a crook, let's face it: he's going to be a crook," Morrison told the House. "So we should just let the electoral process take care of the problem."
On a voice vote, House members accepted Morrison amendments killing a requirement that legislators swear that they will not use their public offices to benefit themselves or their close financial associates, and agreed to dump a requirement that legislators disclose names of companies in which they hold stock.
Glasscock, leading efforts to strengthen the law, pushed through an amendment that would require legislators to disclose publicly their appearances on behalf of clients before state agencies. He failed, however, on a vote of 43 to 50, to win approval for an amendment that would have set up an independent commission to review conflict-of-interest allegations involving legislators.
"What this body would do would be to give us the opportunity for some protection" from false charges, Glasscock told his colleagues. "The purpose would not be to snoop around and check on us, but to help us out."
At present, Virginia legislators are not required to disclose the value of their financial holdings or identify them other than by broad categories. There is no restriction on lawmakers 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.
Under the bill passed yesterday, none of that would change. As amended, the measure would merely enhance some of the state's financial reporting requirements and establish a mechanism for reviewing legislators' disclosure forms. The measure provides that violators shall be subject to the legislature's internal disciplinary procedures and will not be regarded as in violation of criminal law.