Does Lawmaker Cronyism Extend Even to Ethics Panels?

On Tuesday I declared the ethics flap involving Sens. Kenneth Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, and Thomas Norment Jr., R-James City, to be “Case closed.” Perhaps I was premature. David Nixon, the Roanoke attorney who charged the two veteran politicians of conflict of interest, now levels similar accusations against two members of the ethics panel that absolved them.

According to a prepared statement issued by Nixon’s office:

In an addendum to the ethics complaints filed in February, Nixon requested that two panel members who had given donations to Stolle or to the political action committee for Norment and Stolle recuse themselves. Former Senators Wiley Mitchell and Robert Calhoun refused. Mitchell donated directly to Senator Stolle just five months ago, and he has contributed twice prior to that (Source: In 2005, the record shows he also donated to Virginians for Responsible Government, which according to VPAP is a political action committee set up “to provide support for the so-called ‘Gang of Five’ Republican Senators – Chichester, Norment, Stosch, Stolle, Wampler…” Calhoun also gave to the same PAC in 2002.

Both Mitchell and Calhoun also represent clients with a stake in the outcome of eminent domain legislation, the issue in which Nixon claims Norment and Stolle were conflicted. During the hearing Nixon provided additional information documenting the alleged conflicts, which I have appended to the “comments” section of this post. Continues the prepared statement:

“The procedure established in the General Assembly Conflicts of Interest Act was set up by the Senate to police itself. The ethics panel refused to open the hearing to the public and they refused to give any explanation of why they exonerated the two Senators,” said Nixon. “Ethics hearings especially should be carried out in the light of day and under the scrutiny of the public and the press. The blatant irony of an ethics panel hearing and its ruling being closed to the public seems… well, unethical. If the Senators did nothing wrong, then why won’t the panel tell us how they arrived at that conclusion based on the evidence?” Nixon queried.

An editorial writer at the Virginian-Pilot is sympathic to Nixon’s new allegations. Writes the pundit:

The ethics advisory panel consists of three former senators and one former college president, all of whom have long-term relationships to one degree or another with the senators under scrutiny. All the current members are admirable, accomplished people, but an ethics advisory panel ought not to consist of folks who could legitimately be accused of being cronies. …

Here in a nutshell is what’s wrong with ethics regulation in Virginia government. It’s so inbred, so devoid of accountability, that even if a right action is taken, it smells.

Taking conflicts of interest seriously is what sets Virginia apart from New Jersey, Chicago, Lousiana and other entrepots of dealing in political favors. The blogosphere needs to shine some sunlight on these kinds of relationships.

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8 responses to “Does Lawmaker Cronyism Extend Even to Ethics Panels?”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I guess I’d be a real jerk if I said that some folks consider honesty and accountability for the “little people”…..

    this is exactly why folks like Darrel and Reid and others… don’t want Regional Governments and can you blame them?

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Here is the “new information” that Nixon presented during the Norment-Stolle ethics hearing. I present it here not to endorse it but simply to make the material available to anyone who might want to review it.

    New evidence presented at panel hearing

    At the April 19 hearing, Nixon presented new evidence that Norment and Stolle had violated the Conflicts of Interest Act and had tacitly admitted to such:

    1. Since the complaints were filed, the two Senators abstained from virtually all votes concerning eminent domain. On just two bills this year, Norment abstained 21 times and Stolle abstained 19 times.

    They both argued that the Attorney General’s opinion cleared them to debate and vote on eminent domain bills. But Nixon stated that their abstentions were tacit admissions that the AG’s opinion did not deal with the fact that both Senators are paid rainmakers (“presenters”) for their law firm, attempting to obtain “corporate and government” clients for Kaufman & Canoles, while at the same time taking actions in the General Assembly to ingratiate themselves to those prospective clients.

    This is a clear violation of Section 30-103 (5), which prohibits a Senator from accepting a “professional opportunity that reasonably tends to influence him in the performance of his official duties.” It is also a violation 30-103 (6), which prohibits a Senator from accepting a “professional opportunity when he knows that there is a reasonable likelihood that the opportunity is being afforded him to influence him in the performance of his official duties.”

    Nixon contends that it was no coincidence that a strong eminent domain bill was passed this year with Norment and Stolle on the sidelines, while in previous years, similar bills had been killed or dramatically watered down.

    2. Kaufman and Canoles made substantial changes to its website after the filing of the complaints, deleting all mention of the rainmaking position on both Senators’ web pages. Virtually all of the remaining language mentioned in the complaints was deleted or substantially modified (see below for detail).

    3. Within a few weeks of the filing of the complaints, the Eminent Domain subcommittee of the Senate Courts of Justice committee simply disappeared. Two of the four members of the committee were Norment and Stolle, and Norment was chairman.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Here is Nixon’s summary of changes to the Kaufman and Canoles website that have taken place since the filing of his conflict-of-interest allegations. Once again, I present this for information purposes only, not as an endorsement of the contents.

    Stolle’s Web Page

    1) Prior to the complaints, the web page for Senator Stolle stated in the first sentence that, “Senator Stolle offers his clients a blend of legal and political experience,” after giving only his political credentials. After the complaints, the webpage was changed to add a reference to both his legal and his political credentials.

    2) Prior to the complaints, the web page for Stolle stated, “For Kaufman & Canoles, Ken works closely with colleague Tommy Norment – the Senate Majority Leader – in presenting the firm to prospective corporate and government clients.” After, the complaints, there was no mention of any of this, and furthermore, no mention that Stolle is a rainmaker for the firm.

    3) Prior to the complaints, there was a reference to Stolle’s vast knowledge of state government and his network of business, government, and law enforcement leaders. After the complaints, there was no mention of his vast knowledge or network.

    4) Prior to the complaints, there was a mention of Stolle’s political know-how and personal relationships and a quote thereafter from the Senator that, “We have the ability to make things happen.” After the complaints, there was no mention of political know-how, personal relationships, or a quote that the Senator can “make things happen.”

    Norment’s Web Page

    1) to the complaints, there was a statement that Senator Norment had extensive political experience and his mix of litigation know-how and real-world savvy “helps get things done.” After the complaints, there was no mention of his “real-world savvy” and how he can “get things done.”

    2) Prior to the complaints, there was a statement that Norment’s “professional focus is representing Kaufman & Canoles to prospective corporate and governmental clients.” After the complaints, there was no mention of the fact that Norment is a rainmaker.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    The advocates on both sides of the eminent domain argument insisted that everybody who owns real property in Virginia had a stake in this issue, so I guess the whole General Assembly had to abstain. Lawyers are going to be paid for these disputes no matter what the law says — the policy is not the issue for themn — so where you have to watch them is when they are making things more complicated so they get more billable hours. This whole thing is just bogus.

    Every member of the General Assembly carries their real life experience, wisdom and prejudice into the process, with dashes of self interest. Bills need a majority vote in two chambers, and every couple of years the people get a chance to vote the rascals out. The system not only works, it is genius. Keep the sun shining with full financial disclosures, but don’t saddle us with a professional General Assembly with no ties to the realities of the working world.

    Nixon has had his fifteen minutes and should move on. Wow — he got them to rewrite their webpages. That’s clout. Both will be re-elected.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    You are missing the issue, James — when you can’t win on the merits, go for the personal attack. Getting Norment and Stolle on the sideline and on the defensive to tilt the balance during the Assembly was the whole point of Nixon’s bogus but ugly complaint. And if he is allowed to get away with it, you can expect the tactic to be repeated. There was little reason to change Virginia’s law in the first place. And there is good reason to worry that the line has now moved to far in the other direction.

    This was always a fight over money, not high principle. It was a battle between those who want to pay less for needed land and easements and those who want to collect more when they surrender those assets. All the hate and all the fear just covered up the real motive — greed.

  6. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Jim, you give Virginia too much credit for being a good government state. Take a look at Gerry Connolly for example. His day job is for SAIC. His night job as chairman of the BoS will involve final approval for both funding for the Silver Line, which will have a station right in front of SAIC’s building on Route 7 and the proposed amendment to Fairfax County’s comprehensive plan that would give more density to SAIC.

    Chicago and New Jersey have nothing on Virginia.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Every member of the General Assembly carries their real life experience, wisdom and prejudice into the process, with dashes of self interest.”

    I’m not paying enough attention to know if there are ongoing agendas involved ..

    .. however…

    I accept the premise that no self-respecting human being would not have some conflicts between their own interests and the public interest .. legislation…

    but what I don’t accept is the premise that because this is so that disclosure is .. no different than for an ordinary non-elected person.

    It’s the APPEARANCE of a potential conflict and the abscence of acknowledgement and full and complete disclosure that is the problem.

    Elected people needs to provide scrupulous credentials… to the public – to clearly show that they know that there are potential conflicts that, if nothing, else, could be interpreted wrongly.

    When elected officials ignore these dynamics and their mea culpas are .. essentially to ignore or take advantage of loopholes to evade proper disclosure THEN the public … is NOT assured….

    and that.. in my mind.. is the problem.

    Any elected should go out of their way to disclose, and fully respond to questions… always….

    In this day of websites.. it is super easy to have a staff person take care of the details of this.

    It can be done and it should be done – without more and more laws to deal with every little loophole that has been discovered….and exploited.

  8. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Only one reason why I distrust transportation authorities.

    From the Pilot.

    The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission approved using Kaufman & Canoles, a law firm; Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering company; and The PFM Group, a financial services company that has helped develop regional toll studies.

    Art Collins, the commission’s executive director, said the three firms would provide guidance to regional governments that may lack the appropriate in-house expertise.

    The authority was created by the General Assembly to empower the region to raise money and build several major transportation projects

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