Time to Get Serious About Ethics Reform

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

After months of embarrassing controversy, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell announced today that he will return gifts that he and his family received from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the head of a Henrico County dietary-supplement maker. McDonnell had earlier said that he had repaid $120,000 in loans provided to him and his family by Williams.

These are worthy gestures and can help McDonnell restore some of the trust that he has lost with residents of his state. But a larger issue looms. It’s time for Virginia to give how it handles political gift-giving, donations and disclosures a serious rethink.

Virginia’s disclosure policies are the most lax in the country. This is by design. As a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial on this topic noted, they are a product of the state’s historic attraction to limited government and the conceit that Virginia’s public servants are by nature so honorable that they do not need to be held to standards that many other states find necessary.

McDonnell’s problems with accepting gifts, as well as the problems of Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Cuccinelli, provide a clear blueprint of Virginia’s disclosure weaknesses. It is time to start thinking of a plan that the General Assembly can consider next winter that would bring major reforms.

Key elements of this plan should include:

● A ban of gifts of any amount or type to any state official. The ban should include immediate members of the officials’ family, including spouses, children and parents.

● State officials must report any and all holdings, including stocks, within appropriate time limits or face fines or prison time.

● Limits on political contributions by individuals or corporations to political candidates.

● Immediate and complete disclosure of political donations to any state official or their political action committees (PACs).

● PACs must report their incoming money promptly and provide a complete accounting of how it is spent. This would include precise language describing how the money is spent, including via credit cards.

● The creation of a State Ethics Commission with investigative power to probe allegations of disclosure law violations. It would serve as a “go-to” agency for whistleblowers and would work closely with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

● Virginia should start taking steps toward building a more professional legislature. The General Assembly is a part-time operation formed when the state was far different. Senators get $18,000 a year and delegates $17,400 a year plus per diem, roughly the level of far more rural and less-populated states. Raising lawmakers’ pay might make accepting gifts less attractive.

● There needs to be a rethinking of the Virginia Public Access Project, the nonprofit, nonpartisan group that maintains open databases on political money flows. VPAP does a good job of collecting and distributing information. The organization, however, is powerless if the information gathered by the State Elections Board  is incomplete or misleading, as has been the case with the McDonnells and Cuccinelli.

If Virginia is to achieve its potential as a productive, healthy and honest place to live, it has to shed its old ways of thinking when it comes to public accountability. There was an Old Dominion. It is time for a new one.

 

 

 

11 Responses to Time to Get Serious About Ethics Reform

  1. I agree with most of the reform ideas you lay out. I’m divided on the shift to a more “professional” legislature — I want to see the specifics. But I don’t understand your problem with VPAP.

    You state, “The organization … is powerless if the information it receives from the State Elections Commission is incomplete or misleading.”

    But your previous suggestions would (a) ensure that the information is complete, and (b) that there are penalties for noncompliance. Those are government functions, not VPAP functions. What “rethinking” needs to be done?

  2. VPAP is obviously a private organization. It was set up because the State Elections Board was not doing its job in sharing PUBLIC information with the public. Why not?

    When politicians like McDonnell and Cuccinelli are tardy or lie or skirt the edge of the legal ice with disclosures, VPAP just reports it as such. Why doesn’t the state do anything to verify data? Why do we have to have a non-profit funded in large pat by deep-pocketed corporations with huge public agendas like Alpha Natural Resources and Dominion, bankrolling VPAP?

    This is not to criticize VPAP — it seems to do a good job with what it has set out to do. But is not enough as the McDonnell case shows. The General Assembly should realize the limitations of VPAP and empower a state agency to do what it properly should do.

    As for making a more professional legislature, gee, when you pay part-timers pin money to make huge decisions for a 21st century state, you are going to get Mississippi-style service. That state pays even less, about $10K a year — to legislators. No wonder a uranium firm can easily get a bunch of Virginians on an expenses-paid trip to France, Paris included.

    Jim, you have to start realizing that if Virginia is to become the modern state you seem to envision and advocate, it has to shed its old-style ways that suited when you had lots of gentlemen farmer elite types running the show with little public input.

  3. VPAP basically converted the publically available paper at the SBE to online at the beginning…. a manual process still if the data is still on paper but then they took all that data and put it into a searchable database so you can, for instance, quickly see a list of who got donations from one company, etc.

    VPAP has no role beyond that. they cannot investigate or force disclosure, etc.

    In theory, the SBE could be doing everything that VPAP is doing and in doing so function as a govt agency like JLARC or VAAPA but the founders of VPAP brought the internet and database technology to the game before SBE was ready to.

    Even with corporate and private donations, VPAP is not flush with operational funding… for instance, they do not have the resources to cover all local elections at the BOS level in Va and have only slowly got the bigger ones.

    if you go to: http://www.vpap.org/candidates/index?display=local

    you’ll see they only have maybe a third of the counties and even less of the cities and towns…

    but this sort of shows the paradox of govt on things like this.

    they do not have to do the better job that VPAP does.

    take a look at Waldo Joquith’s Richmond Sunlight and compare it to the General Assembly’s own bill tracking or look at his new Virginia Decoded compared to how Va provides the Code of Va online.

    All 3 are citizen labor of love efforts. Sunlight is funded by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and Va Decoded got a grant from Funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_S._and_James_L._Knight_Foundation which both Peter and Jim B might be familiar with since it’s dedicated to journalism.

    just GOOGLE “Virginia Decoded” to see it.

    so .. all 3 of these already have a state agency counterpart and in all 3 cases, the state agency nor the general assembly seemed to have the motivation to make the information more available to the public and easier to use – at least compared to the citizen versions – in my view and I think others.

    For instance, it is know that both legislators and lobbyists use Richmond Sunlight and VPAP and will be using Va Decoded more and more as it provides an exceptional function – the ability to follow the lineage of code through the code of Va as it has been added to, changed, etc.

    but I do not believe the State agencies would have ever innovated to the extent that VPAP, Richmond Sunlight, Va Decoded did… and if these thing were to receive State funding – I’d worry more than I would with corporate funding because all 3 are, in effect, competitors to the state-created functions and sooner or later – politics would succeed in degrading them for making it “too easy” to get information…excuse my cynicism….

    I’d prefer instead to see an endowment created like the Virginia Endowment for the Environment – if you GOOGLE them you can see the history and current mission.

    So Peter’s criticism is in my view – off the mark. VPAP cannot change anything about the way the State does political money donations… it basically can only report what SBE makes available to them and that’s it.

    I’d rather see it’s contributors including the big corporations – created an endowment that provides some level of insularity between the donations and VPAP.

  4. Jim – it’s a pain in the butt when putting links in comments and the whole thing goes to moderation…….

    my comments below with the dang links removed!

    VPAP basically converted the publically available paper at the SBE to online at the beginning…. a manual process still if the data is still on paper but then they took all that data and put it into a searchable database so you can, for instance, quickly see a list of who got donations from one company, etc.

    VPAP has no role beyond that. they cannot investigate or force disclosure, etc.

    In theory, the SBE could be doing everything that VPAP is doing and in doing so function as a govt agency like JLARC or VAAPA but the founders of VPAP brought the internet and database technology to the game before SBE was ready to.

    Even with corporate and private donations, VPAP is not flush with operational funding… for instance, they do not have the resources to cover all local elections at the BOS level in Va and have only slowly got the bigger ones.

    if you go to: the local candidates list in VPAP

    you’ll see they only have maybe a third of the counties and even less of the cities and towns…

    but this sort of shows the paradox of govt on things like this.

    they do not have to do the better job that VPAP does.

    take a look at Waldo Joquith’s Richmond Sunlight and compare it to the General Assembly’s own bill tracking or look at his new Virginia Decoded compared to how Va provides the Code of Va online.

    All 3 are citizen labor of love efforts. Sunlight is funded by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and Va Decoded got a grant from Funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_S._and_James_L._Knight_Foundation which both Peter and Jim B might be familiar with since it’s dedicated to journalism.

    just GOOGLE “Virginia Decoded” to see it.

    so .. all 3 of these already have a state agency counterpart and in all 3 cases, the state agency nor the general assembly seemed to have the motivation to make the information more available to the public and easier to use – at least compared to the citizen versions – in my view and I think others.

    For instance, it is know that both legislators and lobbyists use Richmond Sunlight and VPAP and will be using Va Decoded more and more as it provides an exceptional function – the ability to follow the lineage of code through the code of Va as it has been added to, changed, etc.

    but I do not believe the State agencies would have ever innovated to the extent that VPAP, Richmond Sunlight, Va Decoded did… and if these thing were to receive State funding – I’d worry more than I would with corporate funding because all 3 are, in effect, competitors to the state-created functions and sooner or later – politics would succeed in degrading them for making it “too easy” to get information…excuse my cynicism….

    I’d prefer instead to see an endowment created like the Virginia Endowment for the Environment – if you GOOGLE them you can see the history and current mission.

    So Peter’s criticism is in my view – off the mark. VPAP cannot change anything about the way the State does political money donations… it basically can only report what SBE makes available to them and that’s it.

    I’d rather see it’s contributors including the big corporations – created an endowment that provides some level of insularity between the donations and VPAP.

  5. Larry,
    I think citizen activism is great and I commend VPAP and the other groups. I know and have said that VPAP cannot vet its info. But you are avoiding the basic question:

    Why are citizens groups doing what the state should be doing?Why can’t the State Elections Board provide user friendly info?

    Gee, local counties sure don’t have any trouble providing real estate listings, sales, taxes, assessments, etc. in digital form. It is all there (for many counties and cities) at the click of your fingers.Of course, the realtors want it that way.

    Why do we have to jump through non-profit groups and hoops to get info the citizens of the state are paying for?

    If we are going for a wholesale reform, it has to include the services now provided by VPAP.They can keep doing it, if they wish. The problem is that the state and its legislators would just say, why bother VPAP is doing it. And if Bob and Maureen and Ken slip through the cracks, nobody seems to care.

    I think you miss my point.

  6. re: ” Why are citizens groups doing what the state should be doing?Why can’t the State Elections Board provide user friendly info?”

    because they are not inclined to do so? seriously. Have you tried to use the State’s legislative information system compared to Richmond Sunshine?

    “Gee, local counties sure don’t have any trouble providing real estate listings, sales, taxes, assessments, etc. in digital form. It is all there (for many counties and cities) at the click of your fingers.Of course, the realtors want it that way.”

    yup, agree.. are you suggesting that you can FORCE them to provide the other stuff they don’t provide?

    “Why do we have to jump through non-profit groups and hoops to get info the citizens of the state are paying for?”

    because the state agencies are not held accountable by citizens but instead their funders – the GA – who really, if you think about it, DON’T want them to do this job that well!

    “If we are going for a wholesale reform, it has to include the services now provided by VPAP.They can keep doing it, if they wish. The problem is that the state and its legislators would just say, why bother VPAP is doing it. And if Bob and Maureen and Ken slip through the cracks, nobody seems to care.”

    well we’re NOT going to get wholesale reform or anything like it but if you ask me if I think the SBE is going to do as good a job as VPAP- forget it. they are not that interested in doing it to start with – or the would have – and VPAP would never have seen the light of day.

    Be aware that with VPAP, Virginia is head and shoulders above other states… it’s not just a Va issue.

    I think you miss my point.

    No. I got your point.. it’s just that your laundry list of things to do is totally unrealistic especially if you think state employees are going to do a better job than VPAP, RIchmond Sunlight or Va decoded.

    they had plenty of opportunity to step up their game and it just ain’t going to happen…

    I agree.. it’s a shame that we have to have private groups do this – and I would be just fine if the state did step up it’s game and produced better tools than VPAP but I think I’ll wait until that actually happens before I bid VPAP adieu!

  7. I agree with Peter’s suggestions with three tweaks:

    1. I’d allow any person or company to give any legislator up to $100 in gifts annually. If a company wants to give the Lt Governor a coffee cup with its logo on the front that should be OK.

    2. All political donations to incumbent or challenging politicians must be spent on the campaigns of those politicians. Today, politicians solicit funds for their “re-election campaigns” and then donate the money to PACs, other politicians, etc. Any money not spent 5 years after being received must be returned proportionately to the donors.

    3. The SCC must be subject to FOIA laws. In addition, the numerous loopholes in Virginia’s FOIA laws must be closed.

    • Ditto on FOIA. The law is a friggin disgrace. I negotiated leases of radio spectrum for a number of Virginia School Divisions. The lessees didn’t want their payment information to become available as it signaled what they’d pay for similar radio spectrum. But, under the Virginia FOIA law, it was public information. But then let’s look at Dulles Transit Partners a/k/a Bechtel. Their agreement with MWAA was heavily redacted about prices paid. The information was redacted so others would not know what Bechtel would charge for specific parts of the project. What a farce.

  8. I LIKE Senator Warners practice.

    he lists EVERYTHING.. regardless of value.

    that sends a powerful message – that he’s not playing games with the value

    on 2. – DJ is 100% correct – and I doubt seriously that we’d know this without VPAP and it’s database.

    the simple truth is that we have a “legal” way for donors to laundry money and despite that – people like McDonnell can’t figure out how to hide their shenanigans…

    here’s the truly sad part.. not one person in 100 – and that’s the ones who actually vote – gives a rat’s rear end about this.

    not one single elected official is going to be voted out of office for refusing to address this – so it will go on as before….

    we get the govt we deserve…

    most voters in Va are just fine with our slimy ethics…

  9. Larry,
    All I am doing is posing “What if.” You may be right that some of this is unrealistic, but the GA could force the issue if they wanted to. They won’t want to, but it is important to keep pushing.

    Don’t worry, I am sure VPAP and SBE will continue away.

    Don the Ripper, good point about the SCC and FOIA. I forgot about that one.

  10. Peter – you have an EXCELLENT and well-conceived list but we are so deep in the hole that unless we build a fire under the folks we elect – they’re going to ignore this…like they always have.

    the other question – why can’t govt do as good a job as they should, as non-govt folks can do?

    I chalk this up to two things. First, most govt agencies don’t really go out of their way to innovate and 2. – when it comes to things that affect political things – like money – they’re not going to “improve” unless they have a strong mandate to do so …. they stay out of the knickers of the GA guys.

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