It is becoming an annual ritual in Virginia's General Assembly. Earnest lawmakers, often from the Washington suburbs, sponsor ethics bills to crack down on conflicts of interest and other unseemly conduct. The bills get rave reviews from newspaper editorialists and reform-minded groups such as Common Cause.
Then, as the session wears on and memories fade, the bills wind up in a hostile committee room where such senior lawmakers as state Del. Ted Morrison (D-Newport News) drown them with scorn and ridicule.
This year, the process has begun a little early, and proponents hope a new push by State Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles will reverse the outcome in the session that will start Jan. 12.
"It's not going to be easy," says State Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), who has sponsored unsuccessful ethics bills in the past. "But I think our chances are better this year."
Brault's hopes are buoyed by a proposal from Baliles for an overhaul in the state's ethics laws, often ranked as among the weakest and most loophole-ridden in the nation. The Baliles plan, drafted at Brault's request, would simplify and codify a patchwork of existing statutes for state and local government officials, tighten financial disclosure requirements, and create a legislative ethics panel empowered to investigate allegations against members.
The plan comes at a time when two Democratic state senators, Willard Moody of Portsmouth and Elliot S. Schewel of Lynchburg, are under investigation by the State Police for "technical" ethics violations: Allegedly having failed to make special, written disclosures that firms in which they had a financial interest were doing business with local governments in their home areas.
Baliles' proposals, considered modest even by its backers, could affect similar investigations because it drops such special disclosures on the grounds that they are "mechanical." And while Common Cause of Virginia has praised the Baliles package as "a step in the right direction," other reformers say that it fails to address some of the more rampant abuses, such as lawyer-legislators who regularly practice before state agencies and then draft laws that would benefit their clients.
"Virginia has so far to go that one drop of salt is better than nothing," says Del. Edythe Harrison (D-Norfolk), who lambasted House Majority Leader Tom Moss in a losing primary race for "feathering his nest" by practicing before state agencies. "But it's an absurdity. You've got to get at the root of the problem. Legislators who represent clients before state agencies is the most blatant violation of ethics there is."
However limited its requirements, the bill's prospects in the upcoming session are again problematical, particularly in the traditionally hostile House. Morrison, a Newport News lawyer, says that ethics issues -- a "symbolic sort of thing" -- are not likely to be on the top of the agenda in January "given the problems we have because of the state's$305 million budget gap and the pressures we have to keep the session short."
Moreover, Morrison argues, the proposal to create a seven-member ethics commission armed with subpoena power raises concerns that it could be turned into "a partisan witch hunt." And the Baliles provision to tighten disclosure forms by requiring legislators to identify their specific stock holdings rather than list the broad categories of stocks would, he says, cause many legislators to resign rather than comply.
Besides, he said, "if the area of conflict is known, what difference does it make what you identify?"
Brault, however, insists that the answer is basic.
"Take the coal slurry pipeline," he said. "Vepco is pushing this and, if you've got $10,000 or $20,000 worth of stock in Vepco, the public is entitled to know."