- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

A lawyer from Roanoke is accusing two Virginia state senators of using their elected positions to block eminent-domain reform that would hurt their Hampton Roads-based law firm.

Attorney G. David Nixon, in a Feb. 6 letter to the state ethics commission, states that Republican Sens. Thomas K. Norment Jr., of Williamsburg, and Kenneth W. Stolle, of Virginia Beach, have conflicts of interest involving eminent-domain proposals that go before the Senate because they represent public utility and government clients who use the power to take property from residents and business owners.

Both senators work for the law firm Kaufman and Canoles, whose work includes property condemnation and eminent-domain litigation, Mr. Nixon states. Mr. Norment and Mr. Stolle sit on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, which decides the fate of eminent-domain bills, he continues.

Mr. Nixon said Mr. Stolle and Mr. Norment have “thwarted attempts to bring about eminent-domain reform that would address the inequities of the United States Supreme Court Decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which allowed governments to condemn private property and sell it to another private individual if the purpose was to enhance tax revenues (calling such a ‘public use’).”

Mr. Nixon, who served as Roanoke Republican Committee chairman for 30 years, states that the lawmakers bring in ” ‘corporate and government’ clients that pay the firm substantial sums” and that many of the law firm’s clients may feel as though they have been promised by implication that the senators will use their “legislative power to benefit them.”

Mr. Stolle and Mr. Norment denied any wrongdoing.

They said they do not practice eminent-domain law, and the lawyers in their firm who do overwhelmingly represent landowners fighting efforts to have their land taken through eminent domain.

“I think it is without merit,” Mr. Stolle said. “I have never practiced eminent-domain [law] and have no financial interest in eminent domain.”

Mr. Norment questioned Mr. Nixon’s motive, given that he issued a press release to reporters Thursday night.

“He must be trying to do some kind of self promotion,” Mr. Norment said. “It’s beyond me.”

Mr. Stolle agreed: “I think they are trying to prevent legislators who may not agree with their position from voting on legislation that is before us.”

Both lawmakers have played a major role in state budget issues in recent years and irritated the anti-tax wing of the party in 2004 by supporting a $1.3 billion tax increase. Both are up for re-election in November.

The senators said that, at their request, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, on Jan. 31 provided them with an opinion stating that they had no conflicts of interest voting on eminent-domain reform.

“It was perfectly appropriate for us to participate,” Mr. Norment said.

The complaint comes during a week in which the Senate approved proposals that would prohibit eminent domain from being used primarily for economic development, or to increase tax revenues or employment.

One of the bills, sponsored by Mr. Norment, would prohibit local housing and redevelopment authorities from condemning properties in good condition that are in a primarily blighted area.

The General Assembly’s Ethics Advisory Panel, made up of former state lawmakers, has not met in several years, but will try to convene Monday to review the complaint, Mr. Nixon said.

John Taylor, president of the nonpartisan advocacy group Tertium Quids that fights limited government principles, said he thinks the complaint has merit, but likely won’t pan out because of what he calls Virginia’s “good old boy” system of government.

“If everything in Virginia was on the up and up, I would think there is something there,” Mr. Taylor, an eminent-domain reform advocate, said of the complaint. “Certainly I think the people who have worked on eminent-domain reform in Virginia know the role Stolle and Norment play every year in deep-sixing whatever the House of Delegates sends over [to the Senate].”

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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