WHATEVER OTHER frantic, last-day business Virginia's lawmakers may try to transact in Richmond today, they will have fallen down on their job if they fail to put some substance into the empty measure currently being passed off as a "conflict-of-interest" bill. What has been approved so far, and is now before a conference committee, is little more than an official invitation to continue the too-cozy relationships that exist between the full- time occupation and the part-time legislative service of certain state legislators.
When the session began, State Sen. Adelard Brault of Fairfax said he would press for a strengthening of the state's ethics law, which is supposed to prevent public officials from misusing their offices for private gain. After a senate committee deleted a key provision--for an independent commission that would investigate unethical conduct by state legislators--the full senate voted to establish such a panel. But the house proceeded to gut the bill, approving a proposal that, among many dubious things, actually would shield local officials from prosecution if their dealings were sanctioned by local government lawyers.
Under this fox-guarding-the-coop proposal, county officials could rely on their own local government attorneys--whom they appoint--to rule on the legality of their actions. The state couldn't do a thing about it, even if an attorney were subsequently found to have misinterpreted the law in such a ruling.
Another sleeper in the house version would prohibit local governments from enacting conflict laws more stringent than the state's. This could negate disclosure laws already in effect in Fairfax and Arlington counties. The house's proposal is for an ethics panel that would be appointed by the House speaker to watch over the house only. The senate's proposal is for a more independent body, with authority over the entire General Assembly.
If Virginia's lawmakers have nothing to hide, they certainly are finding many hiding places and excuses. They are avoiding the setting of standards for ensuring that the public interest is served. If the conference committee members believe that the integrity of the state legislature can stand reasonable independent scrutiny, they should concentrate in these final hours on enacting a bill worthy of an "ethics" label.