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.