Resignations like the one given by Del. Phil Hamilton last week are rare.
The Newport News Republican is one of only three Virginia legislators over the last three decades to leave the General Assembly due to ethical breaches, according to E.M. Miller, director of the division of legislative services.
Facing investigations by a House Ethics Advisory Panel and a federal grand jury, Hamilton yielded his seat in the face of charges that he negotiated for himself a $40,000 salary from an Old Dominion University teaching institute for which he had state money appropriated.
But when Hamilton resigned on Nov. 15, the House panel was required by state law to drop the investigation. A spokesperson at the U.S. Attorneys office in Alexandria said officials won’t comment on the ongoing federal investigation.
Now state lawmakers, including Governor Tim Kaine and Speaker of the House Bill Howell, say they want to change the law to allow such investigations to continue even after legislators relinquish their seats.
But it’s unlikely that lawmakers will actually toughen up ethics laws, said Bob Gibson, executive director of the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia and former Charlottesville Daily Progress reporter.
“I don’t know if there’s a will to do that in Richmond right now,” Gibson said. “I don’t know if there’s any political will to make it stronger.”
Whether any changes are made, Virginia has a comparatively good record of ethical behavior by legislators, Gibson said. Especially compared to states like Illinois and New Jersey, the state has a long history of judging legislators on the basis of their integrity.
And Virginia’s ethical laws are no weaker than those governing Congress, Gibson said.
Still, he says there’s a lot of well-deserved skepticism regarding the effectiveness of ethics boards.
“A lot of ethics complaints go to this type of commission and sort of disappear into a black hole and aren’t heard about much ever again,” Gibson said. “It’s not like this is an open discussion of ethical problems. It’s largely a quiet, out-of-the-way discussion that may or may not end up in a resolution.”
Virginia is one of only 10 states that do not have ethics commissions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Complaints against delegates and senators are instead handled by E.M. Miller, who passes them along to Judge Willian Sweeny, the panel chairman.
If the two decide the complaint is worth investigating, they convene a meeting of the five-member panel—which includes two former state legislators and two citizens. But considering that members live in Lynchburg, Richmond and northern Virginia, that’s difficult to do, Miller says.
“It’s a fairly unique situation when an ethics complaint is filed,” Miller said. “This group very seldom gets together. It causes a tremendous amount of work on my part that I don’t plan for.”
And when the panel does meet, the scope of their investigations is limited. They may only deal with certain conflicts of interest where financial stakes are involved, and investigations may only be prompted by formal complaints. So if a member reads a news story or recieves a tip about an ethical breach, they are not allowed to investigate it if a complaint is not first filed.
In addition, Virginia code gives the attorney general the power to decide what information about the investigation, if any, is made public—meaing that the public never hears about most investigations. When asked how many ethics complaints were filed and investigated this year, Miller declined to answer.
Regardless of how many ethics breaches have gone unchecked, Virginia is still known for an upright political culture, said Isaac Wood, assistant communications director for the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Wood attributes some of that tradition to the Byrd Organization, which dominated Virginia politics for the middle portion of the 20th century. Led by former Governor and U.S. Senator Harry F. Bryd, Sr., the organization had heavy influence in rural areas.
“There hasn’t been a need or really a demand from voters for a particularly robust system of ethical inquiry because the needs haven’t existed, at least in the public mind,” Wood said. “So it will be interesting to see whether the Hamilton case will create pressure.”