Starting Friday, local elected officials can immunize themselves from criminal charges related to conflicts of interest by getting on OK from one of their employees — the city attorney.
The new law says if a local government attorney writes an opinion saying an elected official — the attorney’s boss — has no conflict of interest, then that official cannot be prosecuted even if a conflict exists, the opinion is wrong or it is later withdrawn, according to Virginia’s legislative information system.
Mike Doucette, the commonwealth’s attorney from Lynchburg who prosecuted Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms on charges he violated the state’s conflict of interest laws, highlighted the law change Monday while talking to reporters after a judge accepted his plea deal with Sessoms.
He called the change “problematic” and said the state’s Conflict of Interests Act “needs to be tightened up dramatically.”
Doucette said he is unsure whether penalties need to be stiffened for officials who are accused of the crime alleged in Sessoms’ case. The Beach mayor was accused of failing to disclose his relationship with TowneBank, his employer at the time, before casting votes that benefited the bank and its clients. Each of those misdemeanor charges carried a maximum fine of $500, if convicted.
Sessoms pleaded no contest to one count; four other charges were dropped. He donated $1,000 to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government as part of the plea deal.
“But there are problems” in the new law, Doucette said. He then detailed the change that takes effect Friday regarding a city attorney’s opinion in conflict of interest cases.
Previously, the law said a local public official “shall not be prosecuted for a knowing violation … if the alleged violation resulted from his good faith reliance on a written opinion” of a commonwealth’s attorney or the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council. Commonwealth’s attorneys are the top prosecutors of a city or county and are elected by the public.
The law change extends the power of such opinions to those that public officials receive from their county, city or town attorney. Those attorneys are appointed by the local governing body in Virginia, so in Virginia Beach, the City Council hires its city attorney.
After his court hearing Monday, Sessoms declined to talk about the state law’s effectiveness in deterring conflicts, saying its boundaries are open to interpretation.
“There’s a lot of gray in that law,” he said.
Here is the state law in which the change was made. The words in bold were added for 2016:
A local officer or employee shall not be prosecuted for a knowing violation of this chapter if the alleged violation resulted from his good faith reliance on a written opinion of the attorney for the Commonwealth, his county, city, or town attorney, or the Council made in response to his written request for such opinion and the opinion was made after a full disclosure of the facts regardless of whether such opinion is later withdrawn provided the alleged violation occurred prior to the withdrawal of the opinion. The written opinion shall be a public record and shall be released upon request.
Have a story idea or news tip? Contact city hall reporter Judah Taylor at Judah@SouthsideDaily.com or 757-490-2750.
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