The Virginia Senate, whose members have been criticized in the past for promoting bills that would aid them or their clients, today approved a conflict-of-interest bill that would establish an advisory ethics panel to police the behavior of the state's 140 legislators.
The 32-to-7 vote in favor of an independent commission, which many legislators long have resisted as an unwarranted intrusion into their affairs, sends the issue to the House of Delegates, which killed a similar proposal last year. Some senators, loathe to vote against the bill in an election year, were counting on their House colleagues to kill the measure again, according to two senators.
But Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D--Fairfax), who sponsored the bill, said election-year jitters might help it survive in the House for the first time.
"The climate is different now," Brault said. "There were some right rugged campaigns last year, and senators know it, and people over in the House certainly know it. It's pretty hard to answer when someone keeps saying you're afraid to have someone looking over your shoulder."
The Senate also approved a bill requiring politicians to report campaign contributions they receive after an election. The measure, which became known as the "Chuck-PAC" bill, was introduced after it was revealed that Gov. Charles S. Robb had collected more than $50,000 in undisclosed contributions after submitting his final campaign report, and that state law did not require that he report the funds.
The conflict-of-interest bill, aimed at preventing officials from using their positions to enrich themselves, would apply current ethics laws to local officials and broaden disclosure requirements for legislators, as well as create the ethics panel. Many legislators say Virginia's existing ethics laws are weak and confusing, and Brault has made their reform a prime goal in what he has said will be his last session after 18 years in the General Assembly.
When the House last year killed an ethics panel, arguing that legislators could police themselves, the Senate established a panel with jurisdiction only over the Senate. The Rules Committee today nominated five men to serve as the first members of that panel, including former Gov. Linwood Holton and former governor and state Supreme Court justice Albertis S. Harrison Jr.
Several senators said during the debate today that the ethics panels--both the Senate commission already approved and the legislature-wide panel that would supercede it--are designed to impress voters without accomplishing much. Sen. Dudley J. Emick Jr., a Democrat from southwest Virginia, said he realized some senators believe "that supreme court justices know more about right and wrong, more about what's ethical and unethical" than legislators.
"The truth of the matter is, in Oklahoma they've indicted and jailed supreme court justices," Emick said. "We are in rank hypocrisy up to our necks."
"This advisory panel is going to be a perfect wall to hit political shots off of," agreed Sen. Ray L. Garland (R--Roanoke). "The political ramifications of this are really obscene."
The ethics panel would consist of three former legislators, two former judges and two citizens who had never held office. If the panel found evidence of misdoings, it would advise the Senate or the House, which would decide whether to take action against its member.
Sen. Willard J. Moody (D--Portsmouth), a lawyer who was investigated and cleared by his colleagues of conflict-of-interest charges last year, voted for the panel today, saying he was looking forward to watching its progress in the House.
"I've been reading in the press these holier-than-thou statements from members of the House that they don't need this and they don't need that," Moody said. "Let's send it over there and let them look at it and see if they need it."