A Virginia House committee rejected today a controversial proposal to exempt members of the General Assembly from criminal prosecution for violating the state's conflict-of-interest law.
The panel voted 13 to 7 to kill a change in the ethics law that would decriminalize certain violations by lawmakers after other legislators harshly criticized the measure. Opponents of the change said it would be unfair to set more lenient penalties for legislators than those for other state and local officials accused of breaking the law.
The change is only one of several modifications of the ethics law under consideration by the House Privileges and Elections Committee. The other recommendations will be decided at a special meeting Thursday.
Del. C. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke), one of the chief architects of the proposal, chided the committee for succumbing to what he called outside pressures to defeat his recommendation.
"Don't do it because somebody says we're making it easier on ourselves," Cranwell said, turning toward a group of journalists seated in the committee room.
His comments angered Del. Mary C. Marshall (D-Arlington), who shot back, "Some of us seriously believe the legislature should be held to a much higher standard of conduct."
The conflicts question exploded into one of the most dominant issues of the session early last week when the state attorney general's office presented a new interpretation of the ethics law that stunned lawmakers. That opinion, based on a 1984 state Supreme Court ruling, presented a stricter interpretation of when lawmakers should abstain from voting on issues in which they have a "personal interest" -- defined as any business or profession from which a legislator makes $10,000 or more a year or in which a lawmaker owns a 3 percent interest.
That caused several legislators to begin frantic efforts to rewrite the conflicts law. Cranwell said that without major changes in the law, "the net effect is to cripple the legislative process because everybody is afraid to vote."
Other lawmakers have labeled that opinion an overreaction.
Although a record number of lawmakers have been abstaining on measures in which they have a personal financial interest, only a handful of bills has been directly affected by the new sense of caution.
A bill that would limit punitive damage awards in civil cases was stalled today in a Senate committee when six lawyer-legislators abstained from voting on two amendments to the bill.
"I don't know what to do," said Sen. Thomas J. Michie Jr. (D-Charlottesville), joining a chorus of confusion in the Courts of Justice Committee, which is made up entirely of lawyers.
Sen. William F. Parkerson Jr. (D-Henrico), chairman of the committee, became exasperated with the abstentions and put off consideration of the bill until members could obtain legal advice on whether they may vote on the issue.
The proposal defeated in the House Privileges and Elections Committee today would have left discipline of legislators who violate parts of the conflict-of-interest law to ethics panels in the House and Senate, rather than to the courts.
Delegates who voted in favor of leaving criminal penalties for legislators in the conflicts law:
Ford C. Quillen (D-Gate City), C. Hardaway Marks (D-Hopewell), Owen B. Pickett (D-Virginia Beach), V. Earl Dickinson (D-Louisa), Robert B. Ball (D-Henrico), Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington), Frederick H. Creekmore (D-Chesapeake), William T. Wilson (D-Covington), S. Wallace Stieffen (D-Hampton), Marian A. Van Landingham (D-Alexandria), Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (D-Fairfax), C. Jefferson Stafford (R-Giles) and James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax).
Delegates who voted against keeping criminal penalties in the conflicts law:
Theodore V. Morrison Jr. (D-Newport News), George H. Heilig Jr. (D-Norfolk), Lewis W. Parker Jr. (D-Mecklenburg), Paul C. Cline (D-Harrisonburg), Clinton Miller (R-Shenandoah), John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield) and Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford).