Monday, October 26, 2009

Legal, ethical, and bad for representative democracy

There is something going on that smells like road kill on hot August afternoon in the Shenandoah Valley. Our 140 lawmakers can derive income from various state or local government agencies without it being a conflict of interest or disclosure of the money. In fact, no Virginia law even requires they disclose any income from a government agency. This is a story about something that is quite legal and ethical in most situations... but is it good for our representative democracy? Maybe not, but it is apparently good for some wallets.
Eight members of the General Assembly "earn" income from Virginia colleges and universities. Now some no doubt really do earn their pay. For example, Delegate Dan Bowling of Tazwell County has been a professor at Southwest Virginia Community College for years and earns just over $65,000. He was a professor before being elected to the General Assembly and like a person in any other profession should have the right to purse their occupation and serve as a legislator.
Another good example where all this seems above board and quite legitimate is that of Delegate Bill Janis of Goochland County. Delegate Janis earns a grand total of about $4,500 as an adjunct professor at W&M and VCU. Relatively speaking about the same cracked corn I earn as an adjunct at a private college.
But, the hen house is clucking about Senator Thomas Norment of Williamsburg who is paid $160,000 as a part time professor at W&M. It is hard for many to justify that salary for a part time position - just how many courses/students does Senator Norment teach? Or is the pay based on other "duties?" Then Attorney General Bob McDonnell held the arrangement was not a conflict of interest. Would the ruling have been the same for someone of the other party?
Of course, there is the clear conflict of interest in the case of Delegate Phil Hamilton of Newport News. Totally tossing the moral compass, Hamilton lobbied for and gladly accepted a $40,000 a year salary from ODU for a position he used his seat the House of Delegates to fund. Hamilton is being investigated by a federal grand jury and the House of Delegates. Hopefully, the voters will render those investigations moot.
The General Assembly now requires that members disclose annual income of $10,000 or more. But they are exempt from disclosing any and all income from state agencies or local governments. Some choose to disclose, others do not. Many in the General Assembly argue that voters can always kick out members who are too cozy or do favors for the agency that pays them. That is true... if we know about those relationships. The legal exemption on disclosure and generous conflict of interest rules certainly inhibit that.
Perhaps something good will come out of Phil Hamilton's ethical lapse. In the next session, the General Assembly should require full disclosure of income exceeding $10,000 that legislators earn from any any source including any state agency, local government, or school board. The disclosure should be reasonably specific about the services rendered. Then voters will have at least some of the information needed to decide if they need to kick any of the rascals out.
On a side (but related) note, Delegate Todd Gilbert works as a prosecutor in the Frederick County Commonwealth's Attorney's office. So, he is employed in the executive branch, working daily in the judicial branch, and was elected to the legislative branch. Can anybody spell "separation of powers?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Washington Post Poll has some good news for Creigh(whats in your wallet)Deeds he is only down by 11points with only a week left to go. Stick a fork in Deeds he is done.