Rethinking Ethics in Virginia

 ken-cuccinelliBy Peter Galuszka

Kenneth Cuccinelli’s call for a special session of the General Assembly to consider plugging “severe holes” in the state’s ethics is outrageously self serving but it does show what may be a turning point in Virginia’s attitudes about disclosure and gift rules.

It’s about time. Virginia has perhaps the most lax ethics laws in the nation. It is one of a handful of the 50 states not to have a formal state ethics commission. It relies on a polyglot of groups to perhaps learn of ethical transgressions, but even so, there are so many loopholes that it’s hard to get anything right.

The Giftgate scandal involving Go. Robert F. McDonnell and his family, and Cuccinelli himself, is a playbook for what’s wrong. Unlimited gifts are allowed, as long as they are reported but no one is responsible to see that they are registered. Gifts to close relatives of public officials are acceptable and don’t need to be reported, as has been the case with Maureen McDonnell, the governor’s wife, and their children.

McDonnell has squelched Cuccinelli’s cynical maneuver by insisting that the matter wait until next winter’s General Assembly session, denying the attorney general and gubernatorial candidate to make hay out of ethics reform before election day. The governor, meanwhile, has said he has repaid $124,000 in loans to him and his wife from Williams and that he and his family will return all of the  gifts

Cuccinelli has been cleared by a prosecutor for being late in reporting his own links to Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and the Star Scientific firm that has brought so much woe to the McDonnells. But he has still been up to his eyeballs in questionable ties to Williams and his firm. It has affected his performance, causing him to recuse himself from several important legal cases involving Star.

Far bigger issues loom such as how to get on with ethics reform. The leader in disclosure is actually not a state agency at all, but a non-partisan and non-profit group called the Virginia Public Access Project which maintains a comprehensive data base of disclosure data it gets from the state, notably the State Board of Elections.

David Poole, the director of the group, told me that VPAP was started in 1997 as a demonstration project to show the elections board how to gather and disclose data involving political donations, lobbying work and statements of economic interest for officials. Says Poole: “After a few years, it became clear that VPAP served a larger purpose – of stitching together public records spread across several state agencies that deal with money in politics.”

“VPAP is not an ethics commission,” Poole adds. Rather, it is an independent group “dedicated to making it easier for people to access information about Virginia politics, particularly money in politics.” The organization is capable of doing only limited fact checking on state reports.

The problem as I see it is that despite VPAP’s considerable and positive contributions and clear mission, it has generally been considered by some to be something like an ethics board that has the power to investigate and subpoena documents – activities it obviously cannot and should not be doing. If a politician lies or does not file reports on time, there isn’t anything VPAP can do about it.

That is why Virginia needs an ethics commission. That should be Job One, besides drastically limiting gifts and including disclosure of presents to immediate family members or forbidding them all together.

For decades Virginia has held a conceit that its public officials are above reproach and that it was somehow bad form to question them. Those days are obviously over.

15 Responses to Rethinking Ethics in Virginia

  1. I thought Cuccinelli’s call for a special session was pretty deft. He knew McDonnell wouldn’t agree. So, it distances Cuccinelli from McDonnell.

    Cynical – maybe. Political clever – yes.

  2. agree but cynically feckless none the less if he does not provide specifics.

    I’m not sure where Peter is coming from on VPAP but I’m glad he actually talked to them to better understand their role.

    No single state agency is going to do what VPAP does.

    maybe there’s a serious question as to why but at this point, it’s the reality.

    I know of few permanently existing “ethics” panels in the States and the fear is the same as with permanent special prosecutors.

    If our potently partisan world these days, I trust neither side to NOT use such a body as a political weapon.

    Hell.. we cannot even get a true non-partisan approach to drawing State and Federal election boundaries!

    the trick is – how can a valid, truly nonpartisan commission be created and maintained without it becoming corrupted into a partisan body?

    I have no confidence that one can be done..

  3. Non-partisan redistricting. I would support such a change if there were a way for the Political Parties to stop a partisan redistricting plan that wears non-partisan clothes. A fair plan would treat both parties reasonably equal.

    I have a recollection from many years ago when I lived in Iowa, which uses a non-partisan commission. The recommended plan just seemed to put virtually all of the senators from one party in the same district, while not doing the same for senators of the other party. That was simply wrong and unfair. Be they Democrats or Republicans, a party screwed by a non-partisan commission needs some remedy. Tossing a coin results in a 50-50 chance of heads or tails. Non-partisan redistricting should be similar.

    As evil as many believe partisan redistricting is, it’s much better than partisan redistricting that pretends it’s non-partisan.

  4. Peter, I’m open to the idea of an ethics board but I’d like to know how it would be structured before signing off on the idea. Do you have any thoughts?

    On the other hand, I am baffled by your statement that VPAP “has generally been considered by some to be something like an ethics board that has the power to investigate and subpoena documents.”

    I’d like to know who thought that. I’ve never heard anyone insinuate any such a thing. VPAP has always been about disclosure, and nothing more.

    • In my words … I would have guessed that the disclosures were already vetted by the state government before going to VPAP. I would also have guessed that there would be serious financial and perhaps even criminal consequences for failing to disclose or disclosing late.

      I would have been wrong on both counts.

      Apparently, nobody vets anything and if you “forget” to file disclosures you just mumble an apology if you get caught and then file the disclosures. Oh yeah – and after you “remember” to file the disclosures you also remember to recuse yourself and your office from trying cases involving the giver of the gifts you “forgot” to disclose.

      Jeez – what a state!

  5. no one asked.. but I’d do a non-partisan board this way.

    computer generated.

    only voters who have voted in the last 5 elections.

    100 are picked.

    then the list is adjusted to have 1/2 Dem and 1/2 Repub

    THEN – GOP leaders get to knock out 1/2 of the Dems
    and the DEms get to knock out 1/2 of the GOP.

    THEN the MINORITY gets to elect the chair.

    ANY sanctions issued HAVE to HAVE a MAJORITY of BOTH the Rs and the D’s to go forward and if majority of either side vote against, it dies.

  6. Gee, Jim, We’re all waiting with baited breath for you to “sign off” on an idea for an ethics commission. Suggestion: why don’t you google what the other 40 or more states do that have ethics commissions. Maybe read why they think they ned them?

    As far as what you hear and don’t hear, what can I say? You hear and not hear differently.

    Even you note in your blog postings that Virginia has a big problem, then you go back into “See No Evil” mode because we’re talking regulation.

    You have Govs and Atty. Gens. partying and getting gifts, you have Game and Inland Fisheries guys going on expense-paid African safaris and legislators getting free trips to Paris via a uranium firm. You have ABC official getting free football tickets.

    Do we have a problem. “No we don’t,” says Jim

  7. You will find great resistance in both bodies of the General Assembly to allowing an outside body, no matter how chosen, to rule on their ethics or lack thereof. In fact there may be constitutional issues. I consider the idea of a commission something between a fig leaf and a clown show.

    Full disclosure, including family members are far more items than now required. Sanctions imposed by the State Board of Elections or a local court for failure to disclose, up to and including loss of office and jail time. But the ultimate enforcement comes from the court of public opinion, and McDonnell is finding out. What sanction would be worse than the loss of reputation and an honorable name? What is a fine compared to that?

    What some of you want to do is ban politics (non partisan redistricting? Really? Show me how you keep politics out of the process.) and you will fail.

  8. you know something funny? I won’t name names but some here talk with suspicion about other politicians who “may” have engaged in behavior similar to McDonnnell and Cucinelli but ambivalent about stricter rules.

    I agree …and I disagree with Breckinridge.

    I don’t think short of a no holds barred ban that adding to the existing list of “thou shalt not” really is honest. it is cynical because it almost screams “that leaves 100-1 =99 other loopholes.. yeah!

    So Breckinridge seems to be saying.. let them do their stuff but there is a risk of getting caught …

    geeze!

    In other states, people like McDonnell are in prison. In Va, his reputation takes a “hit”?

    we can’t redistrict with a computer? really?

    I bet we can. I bet we’re actually going to see some citizen-inspired, computer-drawn maps that the politicians are going to find hard to defend against.

    the two party system in Va is in control of the citizens – that’s wrong.

    If the Tea Party types had an ounce of sense – they see that as the real threat to liberty but the truth is the Tea Party are basically GOP confederates.

  9. as time goes by, it becomes increasingly clear that the individuals in the two parties – have far more allegiance to party that to voters and in no small way because the party controls the PACs and if you are on the outs with your party – like Bowling – you are one dead mackerel when it comes to money.

    allegiance to party is pretty much gridlocking the legislative process on a wide range of issues – not the least of which is finance reform.

    neither party has any intention of moving much on this – and any individual who wants to run with that banner will have his own party frowning at him.

  10. Oh, I fully intend to make it far more likely that they WILL be caught. As I said, far more required disclosure, and I should have added some form of audit authority for the SBE or some other entity. Perhaps the Auditor of Public Accounts.

    In the states where so many have gone to prison, has the behavior changed? If there is ANY evidence of a quid pro quo in the case at hand, on the part of any elected official, there will likely be jail time. Phil Hamilton is in jail. It is way too soon to assume no criminal charges are coming, as much as I personally hope nothing criminal happened.

    I agree, the Tea Party idiots wouldn’t know a real threat to liberty unless it bit them on their gun hand.

  11. re: prison … oh.. I don’t think I care how many go to prison as long as they do.

    ;-)

    I don’t understand the quid-pro-quo stuff.

    if someone takes money there are a zillion ways to hide the quid-pro-quo.

    the fact they take the money is enough to look like corruption. what politician with an ounce of sense wants people to know he’s taking money but ‘promises’ it’s not a quid-pro-quo?

    this sounds like dumb and dumber.

    there should be no money to start with.. it’s like believing a car salesman when he opens his mouth.

    on one level I’m flummoxed that McDonnell would do something this stupid then on another level – I have to believe that he did think it over before doing it.. he can’t be THAT stupid … he was smart enough to not be that time when running for election… so what he did was brazen … calculating…and like Weiner.. he apparently has no moral compass.

  12. the whole idea that it’s “ok” for a public official to receive money from someone … that act being “okay” as long as it does not exceed some number and it is “disclosed” is laughable.

    it’s bad enough that we consider legalized bribes to PACs as “free speech” but the idea that money can be given to public officials “under certain conditions” is lunacy IMHO.

    No money. Period. No excuses. No exceptions. The penalty is prison.

    end of story.

    the rationalizations.. “yeah, it _could_ be wrong, except if you do it this way”… are not even amusing.

    anything short of that is just this side of legalizing the environment for bribery to take place and pretending that you haven’t.

    the rule for ANY public official should be the same whether they are a part-time receptionist for VDOT or the GOv. there is NO distinction.

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