Monday, January 25, 2010

Lawmakers' side jobs can pay big wages

Though questions can arise over how some of those jobs are landed.

The Capitol building in Richmond, Virginia

General Assembly 2011

Among the major issues: The state's continuing efforts to provide services with fewer dollars and Gov. McDonnell's plan to privatize liquor stores. Session ends Feb. 26.

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    RICHMOND -- It's an obscure job, a 160-year-old Virginia institution unique in the nation. For part-time work, it pays pretty well.

    If you're looking to apply, though, it helps to have good Virginia political connections.

    State Sen. Thomas Norment earned $120,000 last year as a commissioner of accounts -- a job to which he was appointed by a judge he helped put on the bench as a lawmaker.

    Periodically over the years, questions have been raised about the ethical propriety of lawmakers accepting these patronage jobs from the judges they appoint, and this year is no exception.

    Judge Samuel Powell was named to the Williamsburg/James City County Circuit Court bench by the General Assembly in 1993 and reappointed to successive eight-year terms in 2001 and 2009.

    Norment, a Williamsburg Republican, was one of the 140 lawmakers who voted on the judge's appointment. He also sits on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, which interviewed and certified Powell for the post.

    In December 2008, Powell appointed Norment commissioner of accounts for Williamsburg and James City County. The commissioner of accounts oversees the disposition of estates.

    In his first year on the job, Norment drew a reportable income of $120,636, he has revealed in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Virginian-Pilot.

    That's in addition to the $160,000 he earns as an adjunct faculty member and legal adviser at the state-supported College of William and Mary and the $18,000, plus expenses, that he is paid as a senator.

    Norment is the only member of the General Assembly holding a job as commissioner of accounts right now, but he is not the first. Several of his fellow commissioners are former legislators. Others are relatives or law partners of legislators. There are a number of such ties in the Tidewater region. In Western Virginia, Macon Putney, a commissioner of accounts in Bedford, is the brother of Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and the longest-serving member of the General Assembly. Both Putneys are lawyers who share the same office building and phone number, but Lacey Putney said their law practices are separate.

    Lawmakers in both parties are moving to tighten the Assembly's ethical rules in the wake of the scandal that engulfed former Del. Phil Hamilton last year. Hamilton, a Newport News Republican, was defeated in November following revelations that he negotiated a job for himself at Old Dominion University while he was securing the state funding for it.

    Hamilton short-circuited a state ethics inquiry by resigning his seat but remains under investigation by a federal grand jury.

    Among the ethics reform measures introduced in the 2010 Assembly is one from Del. Tom Gear, a Hampton Republican, that would prohibit any legislator -- or any member of a legislator's law firm -- from serving as a commissioner of accounts.

    "I think it's a major conflict of interest for a legislator to appoint a judge and for the judge to then appoint the legislator," Gear said last week. "If that's not a conflict, somebody please tell me what a conflict is."

    Norment did not vote on Powell's reappointment last year, after he was appointed to the commissioner's post. He declined to comment for this report, except to say in a letter that he was revealing his income as a commissioner "in the interest of full disclosure" even though he was advised he was not required to do so.

    Commissioners of accounts date to 1849, when the disposition of estates was placed under the supervision of Virginia's circuit courts. Commissioners are quasi-judicial officers acting as agents of the courts.

    They are appointed by the judges and serve at their pleasure. They have no fixed terms of office. The only qualification for the job spelled out in state law is that the commissioner must be a "discreet and competent attorney-at-law."

    In recent years there have been efforts to lay out more detailed standards for commissioners -- for example, expertise in the administration of estates and knowledge of taxation and accounting principles -- and to standardize their fees. But those are guidelines, not mandates.

    Edward Stolle, one of four commissioners in Virginia Beach, has held the office since 1996 and has written an online primer about the job. He is a strong believer in Virginia's unique system.

    "There's always somebody who wants to take a potshot at the commissioner of accounts system, but often they don't understand what the system does," Stolle said.

    Some states have unsupervised probate, which means there is no one checking on the disposition of estates to make sure it is being done properly, Stolle said. The result can be family squabbles that end up in court.

    Other states have designated probate courts, funded with tax revenue. The Virginia system, in contrast, is self-funded: Commissioners' fees are paid out of the estate funds that they oversee.

    "The users of the system are bearing the brunt of the expense," said Glenn Croshaw, another Virginia Beach commissioner.

    Stolle and Croshaw, who both declined to comment on Gear's conflict-of-interest allegation, share a characteristic common among commissioners: They are well connected to the state power structure.

    Stolle's brother, newly elected Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle, was in the state Senate -- and on the Courts of Justice Committee, which certifies judges -- when Edward Stolle was appointed.

    Another Stolle brother, Chris, is a newly elected member of the House of Delegates.

    Edward Stolle is a partner in the Norfolk-based law firm Kaufman & Canoles, which also employs Norment. Both would be barred from serving as commissioners if Gear's bill becomes law. So would two other Kaufman & Canoles partners who double as commissioners of accounts: Lawrence Cumming of Hampton and Philip Hatchett of Newport News.

    Croshaw served simultaneously as a commissioner and a member of the House of Delegates in the 1990s. His dual roles became an issue in the 1999 campaign in which he lost his House seat.

    The same issue helped bring down the late Senate Majority Leader Hunter Andrews of Hampton in 1995.

    These days Croshaw appears frequently as a lobbyist in Richmond -- as does John Rust, another former delegate who is now a commissioner of accounts in Fairfax County.

    Two other commissioners, Samuel Glasscock of Suffolk and William Wilson of Covington, are former delegates.

    Gear's bill, HB 664, is expected to be taken up by a House committee this week.

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