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McDonnell defends his changes to ethics legislation

Anita Kumar

As we told you before, even some lawmakers acknowledge that the ethics bills passed by the General Assembly last month might not do much to halt the questionable behavior that some of their colleagues have engaged in.

House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong (D-Henry) asked Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) to strengthen the ethics bills through amendments before the legislature returns Wednesday. He now says the governor weakened the main bill instead.

One of McDonnell's proposed changes would end the public investigation into a legislator and send the case to the attorney general if the lawmaker has left office.

"It puts real teeth in it -- get it right to the statewide official that can actually do something about it,'' McDonnell told reporters. "This will create more sanctions, more quickly if there's bonafide misdoing."

Armstrong doesn't agree. He thinks the investigation should continue until its conclusion and should remain in public -- neither of which would happen under if the governor's amendment passes. "Where the flaw is in the governor's argument is you are sending this case to a person who is political,'' Armstrong said.

He will ask his colleagues to reject McDonnell's proposal when legislators return Wednesday to consider the governor's amendments to bills and the state budget.

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McDonnell said his proposal is more efficient. "There is nothing that the General Assembly can do once a legislator resigns...So my thought was why continue an investigation in which there is nothing they can do? The worst that they can do is have a vote by the legislature to expel a member. Well, that's already happened. He or she is already gone."

Virginia law currently allows a legislative ethics panel to refer complaints to the attorney general if an inquiry shows that a legislator willfully violated conflict of interests law.

"The attorney general has a lot more resources than the House ethics comittee does,'' McDonnell said. "We've got investigators, We've got the State Police and we've got the ability to prosecute...Let's get it to the attorney general who, yes, does the investigation with the State Police out of the public light. But this is a statewide elected official with a moral obligation to investigate and punish crime. If there is something that's going on with the legislators' conduct, then I believe the attorney general will act on it, will do it."

The federal investigation into one of Virginia's most powerful legislators prompted a flurry of ethics bills this year. Then-Del. Phillip Hamilton (R-Newport News) sought a job at Old Dominion University while securing money for the school as one of the legislature's dozen budget negotiators.

Armstrong's bill would have required a legislative panel to hold its meetings in public once its investigation has moved beyond a preliminary phase and to continue even if a legislator resigns from office. Hamilton lost his bid for reelection in November and resigned before his term had concluded, ending the House of Delegates investigation into his conduct.

By Anita Kumar  |  April 19, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Anita Kumar , General Assembly 2010 , House of Delegates , Robert F. McDonnell , State Senate  | Tags: Bob McDonnell, Ward Armstrong  
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