Two influential Hampton Roads state senators face questions from a Senate ethics panel today over allegations they have a conflict of interest in the ongoing debate over eminent domain reform in Virginia.
The Roanoke attorney who filed the complaint, David Nixon, said he would also testify before the committee. Sens. Kenneth Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, and Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, will make separate appearances later in the day. The meeting is expected to be private, which the law allows, although several groups have asked that it be opened, Nixon said.
Stolle and Norment are attorneys for the firm Kaufman and Canoles. Nixon said the firm represents clients that have a stake in thwarting eminent domain reform, such as government bodies and utilities. He has accused both senators of using their legislative positions to that end.
Both senators have said Nixon's complaints are baseless.
The debate over eminent domain mushroomed in 2005 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government could condemn land for economic development.
It arose from a case in New London, Conn., where local officials took private property through condemnation as part of a larger redevelopment strategy. Across the country, politicians expressed outrage at the ruling.
Nixon's complaint alleges both senators stymied meaningful eminent domain reform last year, when the state House of Delegates approved a bill that would have prohibited economic development or broadening a government's tax base as reasons for condemnation.
The complaint says the bill was watered down in the Senate so that it made no substantial changes in the law.
Stolle and Norment have pointed to an opinion they received from Attorney General Bob McDonnell before the Senate took up eminent domain bills this year. McDonnell concluded they did not have a conflict of interest.
"If the attorney general had thought we even had a perceptual problem, we would have recused ourselves on this," Norment said earlier this year.
Norment and Stolle said they have never handled an eminent domain case as attorneys.
Nixon said McDonnell's opinion does not clear the two senators. The opinion referred to a different area of the state code from the one cited in the complaint. Also, the opinion did not address Norment's personal interest in Dominion Resources, Nixon said.
Norment has held stock in Dominion Resources and has accepted gifts from the company, including a hunting trip to Georgia that was valued at $1,722. Stolle also went on that hunting trip. Dominion is the holding company for an extensive user of condemnation powers, DominionVirginia Power, the complaint says.
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