SHOULD A LAWMAKER "keep clean" ethically by avoiding votes on any issue with which he or she is the slightest bit familiar? Is it wrong for the farmer elected to a part-time job as a state legislator to vote on an agriculture bill that his neighbors all support? If the state's conflict-of-interest bill is that strict, should that same farmer/lawmaker be in trouble merely for voting to loosen up the conflict law? Are these odd, absurd questions?
They are -- but they're pertinent now in Richmond, where members of the state legislature have suddenly been paralyzed by a new interpretation of Virginia's conflict-of-interest law. The word came from Francis Lee, counsel to the state attorney general, who informed legislators that the law strictly forbids them to vote on any issue in which they have a personal financial interest. Lawyers must abstain on matters affecting law practices, he said, and legislators who sit on bank boards must not vote on anything touching banks. "That language is so broad we could not even adopt a budget," said House Speaker A. L. Philpott.
General Assembly members have become doubly sensitive since the state began prosecuting State Sen. Peter K. Babalas of Norfolk on conflict-of-interest charges. The charges focus on his vote to kill a bill that would have tightened restrictions on second-mortgage companies, one of which paid him $61,000 in legal fees. This case has yet to be decided, but it is hardly grounds for unreasonable restraints on other legislators.
Mr. Lee's interpretation stems from a state Supreme Court ruling in November 1984 that the mayor of Richmond, who also serves as a member of the city council, could not vote on the selection of a new school superintendent because the mayor also was employed as a city school principal. Until this ruling, legislators generally considered it acceptable to vote on measures that affected an industry in general, while abstaining when their businesses, families or clients would be affected directly.
That's reasonable, if the law requires complete financial disclosure. We're talking about citizen- legislators who serve as lawmakers part-time. If their financial interests are on the public record, and if they refrain from votes on which they stand to profit directly, they should be able to conduct the business of the state. The risk now is that in working to loosen up one impossibly tight interpretation, the lawmakers may fail to enact stronger disclosure provisions. Both changes are necessary.