The Virginia House of Delegates balked today at accepting the drastically weakened conflict-of-interest bill approved by the state Senate amid indications of increasing opposition to the measure.
Delegates launched their strongest attacks against Senate proposals that would exempt legislators and local government officials from criminal prosecution for violating the conflict-of-interest law.
"Politicians are held in extremely low esteem," Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) told the House. "If we accept this, we will be pounding another nail in the coffin of the esteem of our legislative body."
"This bill is an outrage," said Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington). "We're doing something very wrong."
Opponents persuaded supporters of the measure to delay a vote, a move that sent both sides scurrying to gather support for their positions in preparation for what is expected to be a bitter floor fight Thursday.
Republicans, launching one of their rare political assaults of the session, met minutes after the House adjourned to map a strategy for opposing the bill. Although many Republicans oppose the measure because it does not guarantee their party a seat on legislative ethics panels, the caucus quickly exploded with a litany of other complaints about the proposal.
The Senate, with the strong endorsement of House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry) and other key House leaders, vastly expanded the House's ethics bill, which would have weakened fewer sections of the conflict law. Many of the delegates who voted with the 95-to-5 majority in favor of that bill, now say they will change their votes unless the Senate amendments are stripped from the legislation.
Del. Clinton Miller of Shenandoah, one of the few House Republicans to speak out in favor of the weakened bill, charged today that the importance of the issue has been overblown by the news media.
"Ninety percent of the people of the state don't give a damn about the conflict-of-interest act," Miller told his colleagues in an impassioned 30-minute speech to the House. "The members of the press are the only ones who care about it as an issue."
Some of Miller's GOP colleagues disputed his statements. Del. Arthur R. (Pete) Giesen Jr. of Waynesboro countered that the conflict issue has pervaded meetings Republicans have been holding throughout the state.
Fairfax County Board Chairman John F. Herrity, a Republican, wrote Northern Virginia legislators urging them to defeat provisions of the bill that would exempt local officials from prosection on conflict charges if they establish an internal ethics panel to review such allegations.
Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, who as state attorney general helped draft the ethics law, repeated today that he finds nothing wrong with the law. The governor, however, declined to say whether he would veto the bill. "I will review it after it gets to my office," he said.
"I hope he will have the political will to veto it," said former Republican attorney general J. Marshall Coleman, who said he thinks the existing law should not be altered. He accused the legislature of "trying to sell a bill of goods" with its proposals to weaken the law.