Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, in his strongest statement yet on the ethics controversy in the Virginia General Assembly, said today that he sees no constitutional problems with the existing conflict-of interest law that legislators are trying to weaken.
"I don't have a specific problem with the constitutionality of that law," Baliles said of the statute he had helped mold while he was attorney general.
Some legislators have charged that the existing law violates the free debate and speech clause of the state Constitution, which they say exempts them from criminal prosecution for any activities in the course of debating or voting on legislation. They have proposed a law that would exempt them from prosecution on charges stemming from legislative activities.
Baliles told reporters at an impromptu news gathering today that the purpose of the conflict law is "to provide public confidence in the legislative process."
The governor said that any changes "must be weighed in light of the impact it will have on the public confidence."
"Everyone does not want to admit a mistake was made," said Del. Theodore V. Morrison Jr. (D-Newport News), who has led the move to alter dramatically the existing law. "I readily acknowledge we've made a glaring mistake" with the law now on the books.
Morrison said that Francis Lee, the counsel to the attorney general who created the stir in the Assembly this session with his interpretation of a state Supreme Court decision on the conflict law, also was one of Baliles' chief consultants three years ago when he helped draft the existing law. Morrison described Lee's turnaround on the law as "embarrassing" to Baliles.
But even Lee's strict interpretation of the law has become muddled as lawmakers moved to overhaul the entire conflicts statute.
Under the version that will be considered by the Senate early next week, legislators would be exempt from criminal prosecution on virtually any allegation of a conflict of interest except in the case of a bribe.
While lawmakers now are subject to criminal prosecution, the proposed law would leave punishment up to House and Senate ethics panels.
"If you were going to set up a kangaroo court, do you know a better vehicle?" said Sen. William A. Truban (R-Shenandoah), who said he opposes that provision of the legislation.
The Senate delayed a vote on the proposed ethics law today at the request of opponents who are drafting amendments that would restore criminal prosecution provisions and other requirements to the bill.