VIRGINIA'S TRADITION of high respect for service to the country and state has been somewhat battered in both Richmond and Washington in the past few days. While the House of Delegates was approving a bill that would weaken the state's law governing legislative conflicts of interest, a U.S. House committee was concluding that Virginia Rep. Dan Daniel broke House rules governing travel and gifts and falsely billed the government for car travel he didn't take -- but recommending that he not be punished. The timing of these separate developments is coincidental, but the message to Virginians is the same: politicians find ways to forgive each other and soften the sanctions.
In Richmond there is hope that the State Senate will undo the damage done by the delegates, and even add provisions for fuller disclosure of lawmakers' financial holdings. The delegates' bill is one giant wink at conflicts of interest; it would eliminate jail terms and reduce fines for all but the worst violations, and it would make it more difficult to determine when a conflict had occurred. If that's the best Richmond can do, kill it. But a senate subcommittee has suggested ways to clarify the law, and if better disclosure requirements were added, a useful set of standards and sanctions could result.
In the case of Rep. Daniel, the House ethics committee found that ignorance of the law can be an excuse. Its reports said the committee voted unanimously against imposing any sanctions because it believed Mr. Daniel had misunderstood rules and because he had reimbursed Beech Aircraft Corp. $7,663 for the free trips and the House $1,343 for the false automobile vouchers. The report did say it was "troubling" that Mr. Daniel appeared to know some rules and not others, but assumed he was telling the truth, "in the light that his assertion was submitted under penalty of perjury, coupled with the absence of any indication of bad faith by the congressman."
At least in this instance there was an official recognition that rules were broken -- and the books have been set straight. But here as in Richmond, the public could stand a lot better evidence that its elected officials really are held to clear standards of ethical conduct.