Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton for the second time in a month yesterday forced the resignation of a member of the state's powerful highway commission because of alleged violations of the state conflict-of-interest law.
Commissioner T. Ray Hassell III agreed to resign effective immediately after State Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman ruled that Hassell technically violated the law by failing to disclose that his Portsmouth, Va., engineering and surveying firm accepted contracts from other state agencies. Hassell did not inform the agencies of his position on the commission and did not tell the commission of his contracts.
The resignation, which followed by three weeks the ouster of the Northern Virginia highway commissioner, William B. Wrench, represents a rarity in the state's politics. Until Wrench's resignation Sept. 18 only one member of the 10-member commission had ever been forced out of office on conflict charges.
"They've kicked my a--, and I'm out here bleeding on the street, and I'm going to take the wrath of the press," Hassell said yesterday. "Then I'm going to get up and walk again."
Hassell said he never knowingly broke the state conflict of interest law, nor did the attorney general ever brief him on its requirements.
Dalton accepted Hassell's resignation with regret yesterday and said he did not believe Hassell, first named to the commission by Republican Gov. Mills E. Godwin in 1974, had willfully broken the law or improperly profited from his tenure on the agency.
A spokesman for the governor refused to disclose why Coleman, the Republican candidate for governor, had begun investigating Hassell. One Republican official said the inquiry was prompted by disclosures that Wrench had proposed that the proposed Springfield Bypass run near three parcels of property he owns in Fairfax County. That revelation became an embarrassment to Coleman because Wrench was on his gubernatorial finance committee.
"Whether the Wrench case prompted him to look into it, I don't know," said Virginia highway chief Harold C. King. "Draw your own conclusions."
Spokesmen for Coleman's campaign and for his opponent, Democrat Charles S. Robb, said Hassell had not contributed to their campaigns.
Hassell said his firm, Hassell & Folkes, accepted contracts from state airport, port, industrial and redevelopment authorities. The fees from those contracts totaled less than $100,000, he said, and the authority officials knew he was a highway commissioner.
Although Hassell stated in annual disclosure forms that he performed government work, he did not list specific contracts and he did not inform the agencies involved of his commission membership.
"Any act by me, while a member of the commission, which was contrary to the law, was entirely unintentional and in no way calculated to avoid any legal requirements," Hassell said in a letter to Dalton that was released after the two men met yesterday afternoon. "Without question, there are countless Virginians now in service to their state, who like myself are not lawyers, who were and remain today totally unaware of the full requirements of the law relative to disclosure."
Hassell, one of Wrench's defenders on the commission during the Springfield Bypass controversy last month, was appointed the at-large urban representative and reappointed to a second four-year term by Dalton. His term would have expired in June.
King said Hassell was a victim of circumstances "who never cast a vote that wasn't in the best interests of the commonwealth."
"This points up a need for possible revision, but certainly clarification, of the conflict-of-interest laws, so citizens like T. Ray who devote so much time will have a clearer understanding," King said. A spokesman for Dalton said state conflict law is "so all-inclusive that it can have a lot of little spurs in it."
King said future appointees to the commission will be given full explanations of the law. That is currently not done, he said.
Wrench informed King that he owned some property along the Springfield Bypass route, but said he intended to vote for the route anyway. King said he saw no problem with that, but Coleman's office later said Wrench had violated the spirit of the state conflict-of-interest law with his vote.
Dalton now has two vacancies to fill on the commission, but both are for terms that will expire next June. The governor is expected to name Wrench's replacement sometime this week, despite pleas from Fairfax Democrats that the he wait until after the Nov. 3 elections.