While it’s uncommon for one Virginia politician to be charged with conflict-of-interest breaches, it’s almost unheard of for two elected officials to be charged in one week.
That’s what happened May 23, when Hopewell City Councilwoman Brenda Pelham was indicted on 13 counts of violating the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act. That same day, Madison County Supervisor Pete Elliot Jr. was charged with violations under the act in an unrelated case.
“Criminal charges, they are very rare,” says Mark Flynn, director of legal services for the Virginia Municipal League.
A former city and county attorney with nearly 30 years of experience, Flynn offers training on the Virginia conflict of interest act and frequently fields questions from local policymakers.
“My experience is that these things get taken care of, usually internally,” he says. “The city attorney or the county attorney or the town attorney or someone who’s been to one of the trainings raises the issue, ‘Hey, maybe you shouldn’t vote on this,’ and it just gets taken care of … before it happens again or before it happens in the first place.”
For official advice on potential conflicts, Flynn says, elected officials must turn to time-pressed prosecutors, whose attentions usually are focused on more serious or violent crimes. He says he’s wondered if Virginia needs a council similar to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, a state agency that weighs in on public-records issues.
Successful prosecution of conflict-of-interest charges can be tricky: The commonwealth must prove not only that the misdeed occurred, but also that the official knew the act was illegal. Quentin Kidd, associate professor of political science at Christopher Newport University, says Virginia’s approach to ethics laws “really puts a lot of credibility in the truthfulness and the honesty of the public official.”
As such, Kidd says, charges are few and far between. “The scary question is: Are they not common because we regulate so loosely that we don’t see them, or are they not more common because we have public officials of much better character than other states like Illinois?”
He says that intent is often an issue in conflict-of-interest questions, such as the ongoing saga surrounding City Council President Kathy Graziano’s handling of a $100,000 budget request for the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Office, which worked out a deal to drop misdemeanor battery and sexual assault charges against David Hathcock, her 4th District council liaison. Hathcock still faces a civil suit brought by Jennifer Walle, a former city employee.
“I think in this case, if I were Graziano, I would have tried to recuse myself from actions and activities related to the [commonwealth’s attorney’s] office while this was going on,” says Kidd, who, it turns out, once taught Walle. “That would have been the best way to demonstrate intentions.”