RICHMOND, Feb. 20 -- State senators tried unsuccessfully Tuesday to halt a proposal by the Virginia State Bar that will allow lawmakers to work at firms that employ lobbyists.
The ethics committee of the state bar, which regulates lawyers, proposed late last month to allow law firms to hire sitting legislators even if they also employ people who lobby the General Assembly.
That proposal, if enacted, would undo an ethics rule that has stood for decades. State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax) proposed a resolution this week to put the existing prohibition into the Senate's rules of conduct. But the Senate Rules Committee voted against Cuccinelli's resolution Tuesday.
"I am significantly disappointed," Cuccinelli said. "I am disappointed the Senate held back."
The Senate committee acted Tuesday after holding a rare hearing just days before the scheduled end of the legislative session on Saturday. Several senators who voted against Cuccinelli's resolution said they did not want to rush to a decision so quickly.
"I don't see where there's a problem or even a potential problem," said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who voted against Cuccinelli's resolution.
"I just thought it was premature, that's all," said Sen. William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol).
A desire to move slowly was also the message from state bar officials, who testified at the Senate committee hearing. They urged senators to let the bar continue to consider its ethics proposal without interference. Officials said the proposal will be voted on by their ethics committee this summer after public comment is taken and could be in place late this year.
"The process needs to go forward. We're happy," said James M. McCauley, the ethics counsel for the state bar.
McCauley told senators that the bar's ethics committee has not made a final determination about eliminating the ethics rule. And he stressed that he and other bar officials were not taking sides on the issue. But he said the proponents of the change believe that current conflict-of-interest laws are more than sufficient to police possible ethical problems.
"The proposed draft opinion assumes that the lawyer serving on the public body and the lawyer-lobbyist are in compliance with the conflict of interest laws," he wrote in a letter he distributed to senators Tuesday afternoon.
But critics of the bar's proposal said they intend to revisit the issue during next year's General Assembly session if the ethics committee changes its rule.
Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) said he does not support the idea of lawmakers being employed by firms with General Assembly lobbyists. He voted for Cuccinelli's resolution.
"It's imperative that the public has confidence in the legislature that they are not meeting with their [law] partners and then voting on their partners' issues," Stolle said.
Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) called the bar's proposal "not well founded" and said it would complicate the ethical issues between lawyers, lobbyists and legislators.
"If the bar proceeds to formally issue that opinion, I feel very confident the Senate will revisit the subject," he said.
State bar officials said their ethics committee has been considering the proposal for about two years. But the issue has current salience because Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), a possible candidate for governor in 2009, has taken a job at a law firm that employs a Virginia lobbyist.
Deeds had requested guidance from the bar before accepting the job and was given a letter Feb. 6 indicating that the proposed rule change would "provide the guidance you need" in the matter.
With that guidance in hand, a top aide to Deeds said, the senator is comfortable that he is not violating any of the bar's ethical standards. But Deeds spokesman Peter Jackson said the senator will follow whatever guidance he receives from bar officials.