IT MAY BE TIME to trot out the seasonally adjusted observations about the mud that candidates are slinging at the expense of some intellectual combings of the issues. But campaigns can have certain other effects, too, when incumbents clean up their acts--at least for the duration--and improvements in government are made in a hurry. So it happens that in Virginia you're seeing a sudden but salutary emphasis on clean government and financial disclosure--coupled with the resignations of two members of the state's powerful highway commission.
The resignations were not precisely voluntary, but were effected by Gov. John N. Dalton, who collected the resignations first of William B. Wrench and then this week of T. Ray Hassell III, each on conflict-of-interest grounds. These events were significant in Virginia, where, until these resignations, only one member of this 10-member commission had ever been forced out of office on conflict charges.
In each instance, the focus has not been on any concrete financial gains actually pocketed by commissioners, but on their connections with the state. And in each instance, the commissioner involved has vigorously denied any wrongdoing. Be that as it may, the question raised in both cases has to do with disclosure, with the laws on the books--and with the understanding that Virginia's public officials do or do not have of these laws.
The connection in Mr. Wrench's case had to do with land he owned and a routing he proposed for a highway. Mr. Hassell was found in technical violation of the law for failing to disclose that his engineering and surveying firm accepted contracts from other agencies of the state; he did not inform these agencies of his position on the highway commission and did not tell the commission of his contracts. Mr. Hassell says he never knowingly broke the state conflict-of-interest law, nor had he ever been briefed on its requirements.
Is ignorance of the law a defense here? A spokesman for Gov. Dalton says the law is "so all-inclusive that it can have a lot of little spurs in it." Perhaps-- but if the law needs amplification and clarification, that is a job for the governor and the state legislature. In the meantime, every conscientious state officeholder should become familiar with what's on the books--his own as well as the state's--and keep them both open.