Republicans in Virginia's House of Delegates, who forced their party's leader to resign this summer during a sexual harassment scandal, are now debating whether to create a code of conduct to publicly address complaints against House members.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) has proposed that the House require an ethics investigation whenever a legislator is accused of "conduct that does not reflect creditably on the House of Delegates."
Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who took power after former speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. admitted paying $100,000 to quietly settle a harassment complaint, said he supports Marshall's goal, if not his specific proposal.
"There probably does need to be some way to deal with the issue," Howell said this morning.
But many House Republicans and some Democrats oppose Marshall's head-on approach, saying they fear wild and unfounded allegations will be used to smear them. Several prefer the approach the GOP took last summer when the party's caucus convened privately and informally before urging Wilkins to resign, which he eventually did.
"I just don't think we have a problem," said Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), who chairs the House Courts of Justice Committee. "Everyone has the word now that you have to govern yourself properly. . . . There are a variety of venues that exist to deal with this."
Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax) said she favors new and tough standards of conduct for members but worries that "if someone got mad at you, for any reason, you'd go into some star chamber."
The issue threatens to divide House members next week, just as they begin in earnest to examine the state's $1.2 billion budget shortfall and consider thousands of bills.
Peggy Kerns, the director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures, praised the legislators' resolve, which she said mirrors similar efforts in legislatures across the country.
"Although these incidents are rare, elected bodies need to be prepared to deal with them in a fair, objective way that at some point is public so the body isn't looked at as protecting itself," she said. But, she added, "frivolous charges can be lodged, and they can cause a lot of harm."
A spokesman for Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), who was among the first Republicans to condemn Wilkins, said future allegations of misconduct should not be handled the same way.
"People need to know where they should go to complain, and they need to know that those complaints will be acted upon," spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said he supports a broader code of conduct, but he urged the assembly to pass legislation to specifically prohibit sexual harassment in the meantime.
"Let's make it clear right now," he said. "I don't think we have to wait."
A spokesman for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) declined to comment on what he called an internal House matter.
Wilkins also declined to comment, saying: "It's not my affair anymore. They'll work it out, I'm sure."
Marshall's decision to request a change in House rules, rather than to write legislation, likely means that GOP leaders cannot push the debate into a committee; House members will be forced to debate and vote on his proposal on Tuesday, after a required five-day waiting period.
"We had a problem last year in the House," Marshall said. "It ended up being addressed in the Republican caucus, but it was a House problem."
Marshall, a conservative who often sponsors morality-laced legislation, was an outspoken critic of Wilkins after a story in The Washington Post revealed that a woman had accused the former speaker of repeated improper sexual advances. In the private GOP meetings, Marshall grilled Wilkins directly about the alleged incidents.
"I was not satisfied with the answers," Marshall said today. "I called the leadership and said, 'This cannot fester one hour.' "
Under Marshall's code of conduct, the allegations against Wilkins would have been referred to the Privileges and Elections Committee, which Marshall is slated to chair after 42-year House veteran Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford) retires.
Howell supports a different approach. At his request, Del. Thelma Drake (R-Norfolk) spent the summer drafting legislation that would expand the House's ethics committee to include a broad definition of personal conduct. Currently, the only charges the ethics panel considers are bribery and conflict of interest.
Sources close to Howell said the speaker will spend part of the weekend pressuring Marshall to support Drake's approach.
But other senior Republicans said they may fight against a new code of conduct.
Republican Caucus Chairman Leo C. Wardrup Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) said the close-knit environment in the House of Delegates -- unlike that in the U.S. Congress -- argues against a formal process.
"The Congress goes across 50 states. The nature of how they deal with each other is different," Wardrup said. "Most important, we know each other. And that's why we can deal with this in a caucus setting."
And Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) strenuously objected to the need for detailed codes of conduct.
"Sometime, we have been, in the last half century, so fast to put everything in black and white when equity calls for taking a case based on the merits of that case and what is fair and just in that case," said Griffith, a country lawyer.