When a Norfolk taxicab company represented by Del. Thomas Moss, majority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates, recently has trouble obtaining a license in a neighboring city, Moss sought aid from the man he helped appoint to the powerful agency that regulates business in the state.
Moss telephoned State Corporation Commissioner Junie L. Bradshaw who, according to an official involved in the case, granted the company a temporary special permit, overruling a subordinate who had rejected the firm's request.
The fact that Moss was able to win the permit without a public hearing or even a notice to opponents is, some say, testimony to the power that lawyer-legislators can wield for their legal clients in Virginia.
Questions about whether their influence is proper -- or even controllable -- are expected to be one of the major issues that the 140 members of the General Assembly will face Wednesday when they open a session that could focus on their ethics as much as any other issue.
What to do with the state government's $183 million surplus and how to redraw the state's legislative districts are the issues that the legislators would like the public to focus on in this year. To others, the overriding issue will be whether the legislators are willing to abandon their long-held belief that as "Virginia Gentlemen" their honor should be governed by something other than their own loosely drawn standards.
The case of Tom Moss and others illustrates how powerful a lawyer-legislator can become in Virginia without violating any of the assembly's rules. Under state law, Virginia's lawyer-legislators not only may represent clients before state agencies whose budget they determine, they also appoint judges and commissioners before whom they argue cases and some introduce bills that benefit their law practices or clients.
Their domination of Virginia's legislature in numbers -- they hold about 50 percent of the 140 seats -- and influence is unrivaled in virtually any other state capital. And the laws they have written give them powers and prerogatives denied to legislators in many states.
"What we have in Virginia is a system which is perfectly attuned for accomplishing self-interest without leaving a trail of improprieties or things which are contrary to law," says former Fairfax Del. Raymond Vickery, an attorney.
While other businessmen-lawmakers can find themselves in potentially conflicting situations, the focus during this session undoubtedly will be on a small group of lawyer-legislators -- among them Moss, Richmond Del. George Allen, Tidewater Sens. Peter Babalas and Willard Moody and Del. John Gray -- who are members of the Democratic inner circle that rules the assembly and are most often accused of using their legislative positions to futher their law practices.
The actions of these lawmakers have gone virtually unchallanged. They [legislators in general] operate under the impression that they were elected not only to the General Assembly but to sainthood," sayd Thomas Woodward, a Suffolk lawyer who served on a legislative ethics study committee last year. a
Few Virginia legislators serve for the salary, which at $8,000 a year for the average two-month session is a mere fraction of what successful lawyers earn in private practice. But many lawyer-legislators, especially those from outside Northern Virginia, concede that serving in the assembly enhances their legal reputations and helps bring new clients to their doors.
Moss, Gray and Babalas have won reputations and legal clients as specialists in the state's liquor laws, many of which they helped write. Their repeated successes before the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission have led to private charges by some present and former ABC employees that the three have undue influence over the agency. All three have denied the charge.
In an unusual public confrontation, Moody was accused by a fellow senator last year of conflict of interest in quashing legislation opposed by a railway workers union whose members frequently are clients of his Portsmouth law firm. Four years ago, Moody introduced a bill effectively negating a Virginia Supreme Court ruling that gave tour boat routes to a rival of Moody's clients. In both instances, he, too, has denied any conflict.
Allen, chairman of the all-lawyer House committee that handles court matters, often authors bills that help his law firm, one of Richmond's biggest specialists in automobile accident suits. His latest effort is a bill, introduced last year and carried over to the present session, that would make it easier for auto passengers to win lucrative judgments in negligence cases -- and win money for Allen's firm, which generally gets up to one-third of each such cash award in cases it handles.
"The facts of life are that this was a bill that would help plaintiffs and their lawyers and that George does this kind of thing all the time," says one lobbyist.
Allen has conceded the bill would help his firm, but says he introduced it because it would benefit the public. He argues that in a part-time citizen legislature such bills are inevitable and desirable: "The lawyers put in the lawyer's bills. The doctors put in the doctors' bills. The farmers put in the farmers' bills. That's what the legislature is all about," Allen has said.
Allen also is actively pushing a measure that would double auto insurance liability coverage from their present $25,000 and $50,000 minimums to $50,000 and $100,000, which would increase lawyers' fees while costing cunsumers more in premiums. He was in the forefront of the lawyers' coalition that killed no-fault auto insurance in Virginia for four consecutive years in the mid-1970s.
Allen's Courts of Justice Committee, which handles more bills than any other legislative panel, is considered the chief watchdog of lawyers' interests. Last year it summarily killed a measure that would have created small claims courts where a citizen could seek a legal judgment without hiring a lawyer.
"The lawyers want to protect their turf," says the bill's sponsor, Fairfax Del. James Dillard, a school administrator. "They never said the reason the bill didn't get so much as the time of day is because it's going to put lawyers out of a job . . . It wouldn't. But it's a foot-in-the-door type concept. They don't want to see any type of inroads."
One portion of some lawyers' turf is the State Corporation Commission, one of whose members, Bradshaw, is himself a former lawyer-legislator. Some, including many of the losing end of commission decisions, contend that banks, insurance companies and other regulated businesses that hire legislators to represent them gain an unfair edge over those that don't.
"It was fairly obvious to us that the decision wasn't based on what was needed, but rather on who was representing them," says J. Rodes Brown, president of Tazewell National Bank, which lost a banking dispute last summer to a bank represented by Wythe Del,. Archibald A. Campbell, chairman of the influential House Finance Committee.
"They didn't get Archie Campbell because he's such an outstanding lawyer," contends Brown. "In fact, our lawyer made a monkey out of him . . . But when the hearing was over, our lawyer told us 'To be truthful gentlemen, the decision has already been made.'"
Campbell could not be reached for comment, but Bernard Henderson, a spokesman for the commission, calls the critism sour grapes and says few lawmesman for the commission, calls the critism sour grapes and says few lawmakers appear before the agency on a regular basis.
"Obviously if we were handing out ice cream cones to every [legislator], there'd be a line of them here every day," says Henderson, although a Norfolk Virginian-Pilot study last year found that in one recent 18-month stretch, lawyer-legislators served as legal counsel in 54 percent of contested bank hearings.
In the case of Moss's taxi-cab client, Yellow Cab Inc. of Norfolk, Bradshaw denies any involvement in obtaining a special permit for the firm to operate in Virginia Beach, where a number of local companies opposed the permit. But Stuart E. Nunnally, the agency's deputy director for rates and proceedings, says he first turned down Yellow Cab's request, then approved it without a public hearing after Bradshaw ordered him to.
"I had said that it was just not right [to grant the permit] without giving them [the opposing firms] the opportunity to protest," said Nunnally.
Bradshaw defends the special permit, saying the commission grants them frequently, that the law allows their issuance without a hearing and that his longstanding friendship with Moss had no bearing on the case. Moss, too, has denied he used any special influence.
Some lawmakers would like to prohibit lawyer-legislators from appearing before state agencies or at least establish an independent ethics commission, as have 21 other states, to police the assembly. But last week, a legislative committee dominated by several lawmakers most criticized for appearing to have conflicts effectively killed a proposal for such a panel, claiming the legislators are capable of policing themselves.
A number of legislators believe the assembly will never ban lawyers appearances before state agencies because, as Arlington Del. Elise Heinz, a Democrat and a lawyer herself, puts in, "a fair number of the lawyer-members value this portion of their practice."
It is also unlikely, say most legislators, that the assembly will approve a proposal to reform the method by which state judges are chosen. Under the current system, Democratic senators and delegates propose the nominees for their local districts, and Republicans contend that they often choose cronies or former legislative colleagues who are routinely approved over better-qualified candidates.
"I don't know a good reason for things being the way they are," says Heinz. "I guess the real reason is that we have always done it that way."