Monday, February 25, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — Statements recently filed by General Assembly lawmakers show how their private interests often crisscross with public duties and the potential conflicts created by those relationships.

For example, how does a lawmaker who owns tens of thousands of dollars worth of stock in banks vote on legislation that could cost banks millions? Or what if lawyers who make a living by representing clients before state agencies, except for the six to eight weeks during the Assembly session, write laws and determine funding for state agencies?

“That’s the price we pay for a citizen legislature, and I value a citizen legislature,” said Delegate Franklin P. Hall, Richmond Democrat, who owns stock in four banking companies.

Legislative ethics dictate that lawmakers abstain from votes that directly affect their financial interests. In the House, it’s called “Rule 69”; “Rule 36” in the Senate — references to the section of each chamber’s organizational rules that define when a member must abstain.

But when a bill is more general, affecting an industry or profession as a whole and not just a specific company or institution, Mr. Hall said, legislators are free to vote.

Delegate Jennifer McClellan is a senior staff lawyer for Verizon who represents her employer before the State Corporation Commission, the state’s utility regulator, and votes on the laws the commission’s judges apply.

“When I practice before the SCC, it’s no different than any lawyer who’s in the General Assembly practicing law before any other court,” said Mrs. McClellan, Richmond Democrat, now in her second House term.

“Nothing’s really changed since I’ve been in the legislature,” she said. “The cases I handle are cases where the SCC applies the law. The law is the law, and the judges decide the cases based on what the law is.”

According to her economic-interest statement, little has changed in the job that pays her more than $250,000 annually — except her ties to the company’s lobbying efforts since she won her seat in 2005.

“It’s probably not appropriate for me to be in that room when they’re discussing legislative strategy,” she said.

Mrs. McClellan is one of 14 legislators who have to represent employers, clients or financial interests before state agencies or governmental bodies governed by laws they help enact.

Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican, said: “I’m very careful in my everyday work that I wear my lawyer hat, not my legislator hat.”

On his statement, filed with the office of the House clerk, Mr. Obenshain disclosed that his 17-member law firm represented an unidentified energy developer before the SCC. His colleague, Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, stated that on at least four occasions, his law firm, Kaufman & Canoles, has represented clients before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

Delegate Steve C. Shannon, Fairfax Democrat, said his firm had appeared before the ABC Board on behalf of clients. Delegate Kenneth C. Alexander, Norfolk Democrat and a funeral director, disclosed that his company had done business with social services agencies across south Hampton Roads.

Such situations are inevitable in a legislature that meets 46 to 60 days annually and pays only $17,000 a year, lawmakers say. Unlike members of Congress, they cannot place their holdings in blind trusts.

“I haven’t been in a situation yet where I’ve felt that I shouldn’t vote on a bill or when someone has come up to me and said, ‘As a shareholder, you should care about this,’ ” said Delegate Margaret Vanderhye, Fairfax Democrat, who was elected to her seat last fall.

Mrs. Vanderhye reported 44 different investments in her household’s portfolio with a minimum value of $1.8 million, making her the richest among House members. Because the value of the holdings are not specific but reported in three broad ranges, the holdings could exceed $8 million.

To avoid conflicts, she said, she and her husband — a patent lawyer who oversees the investments — monitor legislation with an eye to bills that could pose problems.

“It’s not worth it to me to be put in the situation where it would even appear that there’s a conflict of interest,” she said.

Some potential conflicts run in the family. Two legislators — Delegate Watkins M. Abbitt, an independent from Appomattox, and Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, Caroline Republican — are married to lobbyists. Both spouses represent powerful clients with deep interests in major legislation.

Among Madeline Abbitt’s clients are AT&T and Barr Laboratories. Bea McDougle’s clients include a payday lender, pharmaceuticals giant Barr Laboratories, the state’s Realtors association and Verizon, all of them with a stake in major legislation this year.

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