Virginia's conflict-of-interest laws covering legislators and other top state government officials are among the weakest in the nation, according to some critics.
Top elected and appointed officials must fill out conflict-of-interest statements, which have been criticized for being too general, but there is no routine review of the reports.
"They just keep them on file . . . kind of a media supervision more than anything else," said William Bridge, an assistant state attorney general.
"They don't have a single agency that regulates this," said Edward Feigenbaum, an ethics researcher who has studied laws nationwide for the Kentucky-based Council of State Governments.
The clerks of the House and Senate are each responsible for maintaining public records of their members, but they have no enforcement or review powers, which are left to recently appointed ethics panels, which act only on complaints.
The secretary of the commonwealth is responsible for keeping public files from other elected and top state officials. That office routinely requires that requests to review the files be submitted in writing, then as a "courtesy," informs the officials of the inquiry.
The State Board of Elections maintains finance reporting files for candidates and political action committees, which in last year's statewide races spent more than $12 million. However, the elections board does not routinely audit the files.
Bridge said the state government has decided that routine audits are administratively unwieldy and that it will depend on the news media "and good judgment" of the voters.
Annual financial disclosure reports require legislators to list a variety of personal interests, including ownership of 3 percent or more in any real estate, stocks, bonds and equity interests in proprietorships and partnerships.
On the financial disclosure forms, officials are not required to list how much income they receive from business interests, but check only the general categories in which they receive more than $1,000 a year.
Under Virginia's conflict-of-interest statutes, legislators are required to abstain from voting on issues in which they have a "personal interest," defined as receiving income "that exceeds $10,000 or may reasonably be anticipated to exceed $10,000."
No legislator has been convicted under the law, revised in 1983, that carries a misdemeanor penalty including fines up to $1,000 per offense, one year in prison and removal from office for "willful violations."