Senate Ethics Hearing Should Be Open
The Virginia Senate Ethics Advisory Panel will hold a hearing on Thursday, April 19, on alleged conflicts of interest charges against Senators Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) and Thomas K. Norment, Jr. (R-James City).
The Panel has announced the hearing will be closed. Because of the nature of the charges and the public interest in ensuring that legislative proceedings are conducted according to the highest ethical standards, the hearings should be open to the public and media.
In a nutshell, Norment and Stolle are accused of burying eminent domain reform bills because their law firm represents condemnors - local governments and beneficiaries of eminent domain actions - against property owners.
OPEN THE HEARING!
Check below the fold for much more background on this issue.
The following press release by David Nixon provides an overview and background information on the ethics charges against Stolle and Norment:
Virginia Senate ethics panel to convene hearing on conflicts of interest complaints alleged against Sens. Stolle, Norment
For Immediate Release
G. DAVID NIXON, Attorney at Law
Roanoke, VA (April 16, 2007) - In a rare move, the Virginia Senate Ethics Advisory Panel has elected to convene a hearing on Thursday, April 19, to consider ethics complaints of alleged conflicts of interest against Senators Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) and Thomas K. Norment, Jr. (R-James City).
Ethics complaints were filed February 8 in Richmond by Roanoke attorney David Nixon, who alleged conflicts of interest involving eminent domain reform legislation before the Senate of Virginia and the fact that the Senators' law firm represents condemnors (ie. public utility and governmental clients who use the power of eminent domain to take private property) who have vested interests in seeing such legislation killed.
E.M. Miller, director of the Division of Legislative Services, said that this is the first Senate Ethics Advisory Panel hearing in several years.
Section 30-114 of the Code of Virginia allows the panel to dismiss a complaint after a preliminary investigation. However, after its investigation, the panel has decided to proceed with a hearing into the conduct of the Senators.
Nixon is scheduled to testify before the panel on April 19 at 11:00 a. m. in the Senate Leadership Conference Room on the sixth floor of the General Assembly Building. Stolle is scheduled to testify at 1:30pm, and Norment at 3:00pm. Testimony will be given under oath and will be transcribed.
The panel may , at its discretion, have a public or a closed hearing. According to the panel's legal counsel, Harvey Chappell, Jr. with Christian & Barton, LLP, the panel has chosen to close the hearing. Chappell also said that the statute allows Norment and Stolle to demand that it be public.
Although the law allows the hearing to be open, they are usually closed, according to Miller. In response, several public interest groups and one candidate for Senate have come forward calling for a fair hearing of the complaints and for the ethics panel and the Senators to make the hearing open to the public and the press. Citing the compelling public interest, the groups have stated that citizens have a right to know the pertinent facts about the conduct and potential conflicts of interest of their officials. These organizations include:
Arlington Taxpayers Association
The Center for Liberty and Community
Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance
Jef ferson Area Libertarians
Libertarian Party of Henrico County
Sime for Senate
Virginia Beach Taxpayers Alliance
Virginia Institute for Public Policy
The General Assembly Conflicts of Interests Act complaints allege that Senators Stolle and Norment, attorneys at the law firm Kaufman & Canoles, have used their positions and influence (Stolle is chairman of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee and Norment is Senate Majority Leader) to get themselves appointed to the Senate's Eminent Domain subcommittee, where meaningful eminent domain reform legislation was buried year after year.
The complaint also alleges that both Senators have thwarted attempts to bring about what experts consider "meaningful" eminent domain reform through their committee votes, their influence over other Senators as members of Senate leadership, and their writing and rewriting of legislation to water down any reform.
Although the two Senators claimed the complaints were baseless, after the complaints were filed, they abstained from most - if not all - votes on eminent domain legislation during the recent 2007 General Assembly session. Additionally, the Eminent Domain subcommittee, of which they were the only two members, was removed from the General Assembly's website.
Stolle misrepresents his law firm's representation of condemnors to the media
Following the filing of the ethics complaints, in an interview with reporter Loretta Boniti from NBC affiliate WVIR in Charlottesville, Stolle stated that, " ... neither Tommy nor I represent any condemnors ... and to the best of my knowledge, the firm only represents landowners." He told the same thing to the Virginian-Pilot.
The facts show there are at least 13 high profile condemnation cases currently in Virginia courts where Kaufm an & Canoles is representing the condemnor, the Chesapeake Airport Authority.
These cases received substantial publicity in the media and they occurred in Stolle's backyard (see Virginian-Pilot "Dispute Over Noisy Planes Nears End in Chesapeake," January 20, 2007).
Stolle's statement is also directly contradicted by K&C's website (see "Practice Areas," then "Municipal") which states (as of April 13), "Defending local governments from civil rights and constitutional claims comprises a considerable part of our Municipal Law Practice Group focus. The claims have involved representation of municipalities or municipal officers in the areas of ... unlawful taking of private property [ie. eminent domain condemnation] ... "
Public disclosures show condemnors are a large part of Kaufman & Canoles' business
Norment's webpage on the K&C website states, "Although now his professional focus is representing Kaufman & Canoles to prospective corporate and governmental clients, he's still active in the courtroom."
Stolle's webpage similarly states: "For Kaufman & Canoles, Ken works closely with colleague Tommy Norment - the Senate Majority Leader - in presenting the firm to prospective corporate and governmental clients." The last sentence on Stolle's webpage states: "Says Ken, simply: 'We have the ability to make things happen.'"
Norment's and Stolle's past efforts to thwart meaningful eminent domain reform legislation in the Senate certainly positively impacts the presentations they make to governmental clients, regardless of whether K&C does the condemnation work for those clients. As the two Senators should know, conflict of interest covers the clients the firm represents, not the types of cases litigated for those clients.
K&C's governmental clients have a strong vested interest in seeing meaningful eminent domain reform stopped. K&C's ability to get that done through the Senators can directly affect its relationships with those clients. Both Norment's and Stolle's 2006 Statement of Economic Interests disclosures show that government entities have paid them or their law firm more than $250,000 in the previous 12 months (see www.publicintegrity.org). "$250,001 and over" is the highest category in the disclosure, so there is no indication how much more than $250,000 was billed.
Norment's 2006 disclosure also cites a stock investment valued at more than $50,000 by him or a member of his immediate family in Dominion Resources, the holding company for Virginia Electric Power - one of the largest private condemnors in Virginia.
Attorney General's advisory opinion letter does not address complaint
An advisory opinion from Virginia's Attorney General released by Norment to the media does not clear him or Stolle from the ethics complaints, according to Nixon.
The advisory portion of the AG opinion deals solely with Section 30-108 of the General Assembly Conflicts of Interests Act and the phrase "personal interest in a transaction" contained in that section. The complaints filed against Norment and Stolle are not based upon 30-108 and never mention that code section. The allegations in those complaints fall under Section 30-103 (3), (5), (6) and (10).
Furthermore, the AG's opinion states in the first paragraph, "If the facts set forth in such material [referring to Norment's and Stolle's letter requesting the opinion] are incorrect or incomplete, you may not rely on this opinion in the event your conduct is later challenged."
According to the facts cited in the opinion, Norment and Stolle did not divulge to the Attorney General the fact that they are both employed as "rainmakers" for their firm (i.e. attorneys wh o make presentations to prospective clients in attempts to get them to hire the law firm). This was a key issue raised in the complaints, and which the AG opinion does not address.
Norment's personal interest in Dominion Resources was another issue that the AG opinion did not address.
Ethics panel members (as of February 8)
Wiley Mitchell, former State Senator
Robert Calhoun, former State Senator
Ron Carrier, former president, James Madison University
Clancy Holland, former State Senator
Randy Beales, former State Attorney General
The fight for eminent domain reform in Virginia continues
Eminent domain reform legislation would address the inequities of the 2005 U. S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which allows governments to condemn private property and sell it to other private individuals or corporations if the purpose is to enhance tax revenues (calling such a "public use").
Virginia was only one of 13 states that, until this year, refused to pass meaningful legislation in response to the much-maligned Kelo decision.
Reform legislation finally passed the 2007 General Assembly, but a more permanent constitutional amendment was defeated. Without a constitutional amendment, the new law can be "tinkered" with to give back more condemning power to housing authorities and local governments if they find the law too restrictive for them, one Senator told the Roanoke Times. Property rights and other citizens groups will be fighting for that constitutional amendment in the 2008 session.
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