Virginia’s conflict of interest statute requires members of local governing bodies and school boards in jurisdictions with a population of more than 3,500 to file disclosure statements each year.
But for the most part, scrutiny of the disclosures and how they relate to public business is largely left up to the public, the media and the officials themselves.
For example, former Henrico County School Board member Diana D. Winston listed her husband’s promotional products company on her financial disclosure forms, but Henrico officials still seemed surprised to learn this summer that the company, TechnoMarketing Inc., was doing business with the school district to the tune of up to $22,366 per year.
“The forms are not reviewed, though they are available for public inspection, if requested,” Henrico schools spokesman Andy Jenks said when asked about the filing process for officials’ statements of economic interest, which are submitted each year to the board clerk.
After the TechnoMarketing transactions were made public in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article, the School Board called for an investigation by the Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney, the county enacted a freeze on purchases from the company, and Winston announced her resignation at the same meeting during which Superintendent Patrick J. Russo was placed on paid leave.
Russo has been paid nearly $40,000 in the two months since he was placed on leave, and School Board members have provided no clarity on the reasons or plans for the future.
There has been no clear sign of undue influence or wrongdoing in the TechnoMarketing matter, but the episode sparked debate over the ethical lines that apply to officials and their financial interests. The local shakeup also came amidst a larger ethics controversy involving the largesse bestowed upon Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family by wealthy donor Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
For the Richmond City Council, there is no single process of tracking potential conflicts between council members and the business they conduct, according to Steve Skinner, the council’s public information officer. It’s largely self-policed, he said.
Chris Hilbert, 3rd District, who works for the Virginia Housing Development Authority, routinely recuses himself when VHDA business comes before council. Council President Charles Samuels, 2nd District, a local attorney, has also recused himself from discussions that conflict with his business.
The Richmond School Board has a similar setup.
The clerk collects the form, but it’s up to individual members to take themselves out of discussion when they have conflicts.
“We should know what our own conflicts are,” said School Board Chairman Jeff M. Bourne, 3rd District.
The system, he said, is not perfect, but is workable.
“I don’t know how you’d track everything,” he said. “We have to be honest with ourselves.”
Disclosures by other Henrico officials, including the Board of Supervisors, constitutional officers, director of finance and some representatives on boards dealing with children and families, are reviewed each year by the county’s external auditor, according to county officials, but the review mainly involves ensuring the forms were properly filed rather than sniffing out potential conflicts.
The Henrico county manager, deputy county managers and other appointees to local and regional boards are also required to disclose their financial or real estate holdings, depending on the position.
On the gifts portion of their disclosure forms, all members of the Henrico Board of Supervisors reported receiving free tickets to NASCAR races at Richmond International Raceway.
Though it’s unsurprising that the Henrico officials would attend such a marquee sporting event held in their locality, each reported a different value.
Fairfield District Supervisor Frank J. Thornton reported a gift of tickets worth $70, Tuckahoe District Supervisor Patricia S. O’Bannon reported receiving tickets worth $400, Brookland District Supervisor Richard W. “Dick” Glover reported receiving a pass worth $500, Varina District Supervisor Tyrone E. Nelson reported getting tickets worth $600, and Three Chopt District Supervisor David A. Kaechele reported receiving tickets worth $1,000. Kaechele noted that the passes he received were for two races.
In addition to the standard disclosures required of elected officials, Chesterfield County requires every zoning applicant to disclose all individuals and business entities that have an interest in the property to allow board members to assess possible conflicts, according to Chesterfield spokesman Don J. Kappel.
Chesterfield schools spokesman Shawn M. Smith said the School Board attorney evaluates potential conflicts “as the need arises.”
“The School Board clerk reviews the disclosure forms and if necessary consults with the School Board attorney,” Smith said.
Hanover County spokesman Tom Harris and Hanover schools spokeswoman Linda Scarborough both said there are no internal reviews of the disclosure forms that they’re aware of.
In Hanover, at least two supervisors filed formal letters explaining their interests and why they believe they’re able to serve on the Board of Supervisors without a conflict.
Elton J. Wade Sr. filed a letter, dated Jan. 23, 2013, stating he had been a part-time employee of the Hanover County school division for 30 years prior to being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1992, and that he would continue working for the school division. Wade retired as a school traffic guard this summer.
“I consulted with then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Ed Vaughn who wrote an opinion stating that I could continue my employment with Hanover County Public Schools while I served on the Board of Supervisors and that there was no conflict of interest,” Wade wrote.
Wayne T. Hazzard included a letter, dated Jan. 14, 2013, that he has interest in Diamond Group Inc., which owns 159 acres of undeveloped property. Hazzard contended that he can objectively participate in discussions about the county’s proffers policy to pay for infrastructure costs, but would recuse himself if the board were to consider reducing proffers for that particular property.
In March, the board passed a policy that typically has developers pay $2,306 for each new home they build, down from the previous policy of $19,503 per home. Developers with pre-existing proffers that haven’t been paid are able to request that their proffers be reduced or eliminated.