When the esteemed senior state senator from Fairfax County was serving his final term in 1979, his sentimental colleagues in the Virginia General Assembly gave Omer L. Hirst a couple of going-away gifts: permission for Fairfax to build a toll road to Reston and a boost for the George Mason University Law School in Arlington.
Now Fairfax state Sen. Adelard (Abe) L. Brault, 73, who has led the delegation since Hirst retired, is beginning his last term. But the present he hopes to take home is not pork barrel but a modest reform of the state's seemingly permissive and confusing conflict of interest laws.
"He's devoted himself to these bills year after year and just had them picked apart," said Gordon C. Morse, executive director of Common Cause of Virginia. "Maybe this time people will be a little less likely to gratuitously pick it apart."
"It's something I have been very much interested in," Brault agreed. "I'd like to see the ethics law clarified and simplified and strengthened."
Brault has introduced a bill, drafted by Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles, that entirely rewrites the state's laws aimed at discouraging public officials from using their positions to enrich themselves.
The bill would extend several provisions of the law to local officials and would establish a watchdog committee, appointed by the General Assembly, to police the General Assembly, a provision Virginia legislators long have resisted.
The reform effort has picked up enough support -- some of it from surprising directions -- to make proponents nervously optimistic that the bill will pass in some form. But questions posed by senators during the first hearing on the bill last week indicated far from universal enthusiasm for the proposal.
"I don't think we should come up with a bill that doesn't allow some 'free-way,'" said Sen. Madison E. Marye of southwest Virginia, marrying "freedom" and "leeway" in the effort to make his point. "I think we should be very, very careful that we don't hurt the public in our zealousness to be perfect."
The bill requires senators and other officials to disclose stock holdings by firm, although not by amount, if they own 5 percent or more of the firm or shares worth $5,000 or more. "Almost any holding of stock today would be worth more than $5,000," Sen. Ray L. Garland (R-Roanoke) objected.
The law also would be for the first time prevent local officials from doing business with their own local governments. It would require legislators to disclose free trips or honorariums they receive and the names of clients they represent before state agencies.
The bill would not prevent lawyer-legislators from engaging in such representation, however, a fairly common practice in the part-time General Assembly.
It also would not prevent the owner of a bank from voting for legislation that helped banks, as long as it did not help his institution more than the rest. When the General Assembly last year considered bills to raise interest rate ceilings on bank loans, 21 out of 40 senators had some interest in banks, according to their disclosure forms.
Also not in the proposal is "revolving-door" legislation to limit the movement of legislators and regulators to private industry jobs affected by state government, which some states have adopted.
Common Cause director Morse acknowledged that the bill is moderate, and in large part a recodification to prevent officials from unintentionally violating the law, but he nonetheless called it a good bill.
"We figure if this bill gets through intact, that will be a major achievement, and we'll be very, very happy," Morse said.
The bill already has the valuable support, at least in its broad outlines, of House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr. of Norfolk, who has not always been a friend of ethics legislation. "I think the concept is good, and it is an idea whose time has perhaps arrived," Moss said.
Moss last fall survived a heated primary challenge from another incumbent delegate who accused him of blatant conflicts of interest in representing clients before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), who sat in the audience as Moss testified, said the primary challenge may have affected his position this year.
"He's tying up all the loose ends, trying to avoid any vulnerability he experienced in the last election," Watts said, adding that other legislators who must run this fall in single-member districts may be similarly motivated.
Brault himself is making few predictions. "Omer did get some help on the toll road and the law school because it was his last year, but there were other factors, too," Brault said, "I'm afraid some of the good points may not survive, but all you can do is work at it."