The drama surrounding Sen. Peter K. Babalas moved ahead on two fronts today, but Babalas, a 63-year-old Norfolk lawyer who is suffering from cancer, was not present for either one. He was absent from the Virginia Senate for medical reasons, his colleagues were told.
Formal conflict-of-interest charges were filed today in Richmond Circuit Court against Babalas, a Democrat who is the Senate's fourth ranking member.
Four hours later, a Senate committee announced its expected decision to delay consideration of possible disciplinary action against Babalas until the criminal trial against him is completed.
Acting State Attorney General William G. Broaddus filed criminal charges that Babalas "willfully and unlawfully" solicited and accepted money last year from Landbank Equity Corp., a now-bankrupt second-mortgage firm, while voting to kill legislation that affected Landbank.
If convicted, Babalas faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for each of the two misdemeanor charges, authorities said. Conviction also could mean expulsion from the Senate. A trial was scheduled for May 20 to give Babalas time to complete the current 60-day session of the legislature.
Babalas has maintained he is innocent and said he will be vindicated in the courts.
State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee, which oversees ethical issues, said in a statement that the delay by the panel did not mean the senators were reluctant to act. The committee recognizes that the standard of proof in a criminal proceeding is more stringent than that required for disciplinary action . . . . Neither conviction nor acquittal will prohibit future action by the Senate in this matter," said the statement.
The charges against Babalas include his vote during last year's legislative session to kill a bill that would have capped interest rates for second mortgages. After questions arose about Babalas' actions, he requested an investigation by an independent panel appointed by the Senate to review ethics issues.
The panel, in a strongly worded report this week, said Babalas' conduct with Landbank was serious enough to be referred to the attorney general for prosecution.