Hamilton, conflict of interest & FT legislature

The front page, above the fold story in Thursday’s Virginian-Pilot was about long-time Newport News Del. Phil Hamilton (R-93rd). I have to admit – I saw the story pop up on PilotOnline the night before and never thought it would be on the front page; instead, I expected it would be buried in the Hampton Roads section. After all, even though the teacher training center that Hamilton got funded by the General Assembly and now works for is located at ODU, I still thought of it as a Peninsula story. The Daily Press picked up on the story the next day, with some interesting quotes from Hamilton as well as his opponent, Democrat Robin Abbott.

The story brings to the forefront of my mind the issue of conflict of interest and our “citizen legislature.”

Despite the fact that ODU sees no conflict, the Pilot editorial board weighed in on the matter Saturday, saying that both Hamilton and ODU “showed poor judgment:”

Hamilton decries the revelation as a “political hit job,” noting that the issue is being raised for the first time amid his first serious election challenge in years. The timing is certainly inconvenient for him, but it was also predictable and avoidable. Questions about a possible quid pro quo were sure to arise.

The list of lawmakers who are in similar potential conflict of interest situations is rather lengthy. Without breaking a sweat, the Daily Press lists seven Hampton Roads lawmakers who seem to fit the bill.

From the Pilot editorial:

Virginia lacks an independent ethics commission that could have advised Hamilton on the wisdom of accepting the ODU post outside the hurly-burly of campaign season. Such a commission could and should address the actions of other university employees who serve in the legislature, too.

With no ethics commission and the affected parties simply relying on their own judgment as to what constitutes a conflict – something that the corporate world would never allow – I doubt anyone involved would ever own up to a conflict of interest.

Which brings me to the issue of a full-time legislature.

As I argued more than three years ago, I believe that we are past the point of having a part-time legislature. Virginia is no longer an agricultural society, needing our legislature to meet between planting seasons. And let’s be honest: even though the legislature formally meets for certain sessions each year, there are many more days in which service is required, particularly for committee meetings.

The paltry salary – about $17,000 – despite the demands on the legislators’ time eliminates far too many from the pool. And more than that, it puts in place a system of entitlement that permeates Virginia far more than anyone is willing to admit: high profile appointments or elections to state jobs that allow legislators to “retire,” draw big salaries and then boost their retirement pay when they do finally retire.

One of those who argued against a full time legislature when I first posted about it was Kris Amundson, who announced her retirement from the legislature in June. Not to retire to one of those high paying jobs I mentioned, mind you:

But you can’t do this work unless you can also earn a living.

Another casualty of the low-paying, part-time legislature. How many more will leave before we are left with just those who can serve, as opposed to those who want to serve?

That our legislators have to have another job (or be independently wealthy) means that conflicts of interest are bound to occur. That there is no oversight for reviewing potential conflicts should outrage us all. And that good people are being eliminated from the talent pool says to me that the idea of a “citizen legislature” should go the way of the Dodo bird.

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12 thoughts on “Hamilton, conflict of interest & FT legislature

  1. Vivian,
    I also covered this although we played it inside because, it obviously IS NOT a conflict of interest under Virginia law. That does raises questions about the utility of our conflict of interest law. What I thought was more telling was Hamilton’s “tin ear” on the subject. Whether it’s a conflict or not, his relationship with ODU obviously look bad. It’s the kind of thing that makes people cyncial about government. But Phil didn’t see that at all. We had a similar situation here last year when Sen. Tommy Norment accepted an appointment as commissioner of accounts. Again, NOT a conflict of interest under Virginia law, but something that looks like a legislator getting a plum because they are a legislator. Like Hamilton, Norment didn’t understand why he was being criticized. He didn’t see it from the point of view of an outsider.
    As for your proposed solution, I can’t support it. We’ve already go enough members of the legislature are “professional politicians.” Going to a full-time legislature would just encourage more of that.

    1. Do we even have a real conflict of interest law?

      I missed the Norment thing. The COA job is one that brought down Glenn Crowshaw back in the day. You would think they would have learned something about that by now.

      They do have tin ears on this subject, because they feel entitled. The low pay, coupled with the demands on their time, put them in that position. So in my mind, we need to pay them better. And since it just makes no sense to pay folks and NOT have them work, a full-time legislature just makes sense.

      The situation we have now is broken.

  2. Another solution would be a state wide electoral education system. Through schools, newspapers, and public airwaves (leased to private companies) we could make it easily possible for anyone with brains and balls to get elected to public office.

  3. Viv,
    Yep. And before it got Croshaw, the COA job brought down Hunter Andrews.
    No, we don’t have a conflict of interest law that effectively bans anything, we just require them to report it.

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