A Virginia Senate committee voted today to delay any disciplinary action against Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk) until he is tried on criminal charges of violating the state's conflict-of-interest laws, legislators said.
The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, which met in closed session today, is expected to announce its decision Friday in a letter signed by all 12 Democrats and three Republicans on the committee.
Committee Chairman Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) said all the senators had agreed to withhold comment on their decision until the statement was issued. Word of the committee's action spread quickly through the Senate, and several senators privately confirmed details of the vote.
State Sen. William E. Fears (D-Accomack), who is not a member of Gartlan's committee, praised the decision and said he had opposed efforts to set up conflict-of-interest procedures.
"We have created a monster for passing all of these stupid conflict-of-interest bills," said Fears, an Eastern Shore lawyer. He said "the general public now thinks we're doing all of this legislative work for personal reasons."
Babalas, 63, the Senate's fourth-ranking member, was accused by an ethics panel Monday of "willfully" violating the conflict law by voting on mortgage interest rate legislation last year while receiving fees from Landbank Equity Corp., a now-bankrupt second-mortgage lender.
Acting Attorney General William Broaddus said Tuesday he would file formal misdemeanor charges against Babalas as early as Friday. The committee decision means that it will not take any disciplinary action against Babalas until the legal process is completed.
Babalas has promised to remain in the assembly during its 60-day session and is expected to invoke immediately a state law that will give him immunity from prosecution until after the current session ends. Legislators said that time could extend to the scheduled one-day veto session in April rather than the regular session adjournment in early March.
Gartlan's committee is expected to say that the Senate is not required to act under the law because "We have created a monster. . . ." -- State Sen. William E. Fears the ethics panel determined that the charge against Babalas was serious enough to report to the state attorney general's office rather than the Senate.
Some senators have privately complained that the committee's inaction would leave the public perception that the 40-member Senate is reluctant to take action against any of its members. Ironically, they say, the Senate would have been forced to act against Babalas if the charges had been of less severity and had been reported directly to the Senate.