A Virginia Senate committee approved a revised conflict-of-interest bill today after unexpectedly deleting what supporters had called its key provision: an independent commission that would have investigated unethical conduct by legislators.
The bill is aimed at discouraging public officials from using their positions to enrich themselves, and its sponsor, Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), had proposed a watchdog commission to enforce the law. Proponents had predicted trouble for the commission idea in the House of Delegates, but the Senate General Laws Committee had been considered the bill's least difficult hurdle until today's 8-to-7 vote against creating the body.
"I'm appalled, I can't believe it," said Sen. Charles L. Waddell, a Democrat from Fairfax and Loudoun counties, after the vote. "They just cut the guts right out of the bill."
Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond) led the fight against the commission, arguing that the Senate could judge its own members and that no wrongdoing had ever been proved that would justify the creation of an independent review panel.
"We're saying to the public, 'We're a bunch of crooks, robbers, hoodlums and thieves,' " Wilder said. "I for one will not be a party to it . . . . I think we don't need it."
The Senate in fact established an ethics panel last year applying only to the Senate after the House refused to approve a commission. Brault's bill this year would have created a more powerful agency with authority over all 140 legislators and with the right to subpoena witnesses and compel testimony.
Brault, a longtime proponent of stronger ethics legislation who had hoped to push the bill through before retiring at the end of this term, said the vote reflected a deep-seated resistance in the General Assembly to submitting to outside judgment.
"There's been an attitude on the part of members of the General Assembly on both sides of the Capitol that we're beyond reproach, we don't have to police ourselves, we don't have to worry about what the public thinks so long as we know in our hearts that our motives are as pure as the driven snow," Brault said. During the debate he said, "To say that we shouldn't create the commission is to say we're holier than thou and no one should look at us but ourselves."
Brault said he may try to put the independent commission back into the bill when it reaches the Senate floor. Even without that provision, however, Brault said the bill, which cleared the committee without dissent on a voice vote, clarifies existing ethics law, extending it to more local officials and widening its disclosure provisions.
The criticisms of the commission proposal prompted Brault to accuse opponents of trying to pick the bill to death instead of simply admitting they opposed the legislation. When Wilder once prefaced a comment with, "I don't want to talk this bill to death," the chairman of the committee, Sen. Stanley C. Walker (D-Norfolk), responded: "You're doing a pretty good job."