Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb today scrapped plans to unilaterally tighten the state's much-criticized conflict of interest law after being warned by the state attorney general that he lacks the power to change it by executive order.
Instead, Robb issued an order that calls on his six cabinet secretaries to identify all state workers who may be subject to "abuse or improper influence" so he can determine "whether legislative action" is needed during next year's General Assembly session.
A five-page opinion by Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles, released by Robb's office, effectively kills chances for an immediate strengthening of the state's ethics laws because of recent disclosures that state inspectors owned stock in coal companies whose mines they inspected.
Last week Robb had stated at a press conference that the state's new conflict of interest law, drafted by Baliles and passed by the General Assembly this winter, was inadequate and that "more needs to be done." Today, however, administration officials and some legislators agreed that the lawmakers would be less than enthusiastic about delving back into the topic in January.
"I don't know how you can make it much stricter . . . " said House Majority Leader Thomas Moss (D-Norfolk). "I think we have a good law and I think we ought to give it a chance to work."
The conflicts issue arose last month after disclosures that Chief Mine Inspector Harry Dean Childress owned nearly $19,000 of stock in the Pittston Co., the state's largest coal producer. Subsequently, a Robb-ordered review of Childress' department uncovered two other coal inspectors who owned stock in the Westmoreland Coal Co. and an oil and gas inspector who owned stock in an oil drilling firm.
None of the inspectors violated the conflicts law, which was widely praised by legislators when it passed in March but which critics say allows officials to own large financial interests without disclosing them or disqualifying themselves from decisions that might affect those interests. Baliles' office had informed Childress that his holdings were too small to have to sell under the law.
"I've said all along that the new law narrowed disclosure rather than broadening it," said Sen. Ray Garland (R-Roanoke). "It was one of three great frauds on the people in a whole galaxy of frauds."
After the reports on Childress and the other inspectors, Robb asked Baliles to review the law to determine whether he could tighten it by executive order or changes in personnel rules.
Baliles essentially told the governor he could not. In passing the new law, which Baliles' office is publicizing with pamphlets and regional seminars, the General Assembly deleted earlier languague that would have given the governor latitude to make it stronger.
As a result, Baliles wrote: "I must conclude that the General Assembly . . . precluded any other governmental body, agency or officer from acting in this area." He added that "any proposed executive order would be in contravention of an existing statute and therefore unenforceable as a conflict of interest matter."
The governor's order to the cabinet officers was described by Robb aides as a step in the right direction. It calls for each secretary to report back by Sept. 15 with the names of all employes in regulatory, investigative or procurement areas who might be subject to a conflict of interest -- a review that could encompass more than 9,000 state employes, or about one-tenth of the state work-force. It also calls for agency heads to communicate to their employes "the importance and necessity of maintaining the highest standards of propriety and avoiding the appearance of impropriety."
"This goes further than any other governor has gone in Virginia," said George Stoddart, Robb's press secretary.
Secretary of Administration and Finance Wayne Anderson, who coordinated the review for Robb, said today that if the governor proposes a tightening of the law to the legislature "greater resistance is more likely." State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax) said, however, that while the assembly historically has been resistant to imposing stricter conflict requirements on legislators, "it might not be reluctant to clarify things for state employes."