The New Virginia Way

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms

In the cause of chronicling the endless pageantry of corruption and abuse of power in Virginia, we turn today to an article in the Virginian Pilot:

[Virginia Beach] Mayor Will Sessoms pleaded no contest Monday to a single misdemeanor charge of violating the state’s Conflict of Interest Act. The remaining four charges against him were dropped as part of a plea agreement with a special prosecutor.

The deal included prosecutor Mike Doucette’s recommendation that the mayor not be removed from office and that Sessoms make a donation of $1,000 to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. A $500 fine – the maximum penalty for the Class 3 misdemeanor – was suspended. …

Doucette said he recommended that the mayor not be removed from office because he didn’t believe the circumstances called for it.

The no-contest plea stemmed from a 2011 incident in which Sessoms voted for a proposal by Madison Landing LLC to rezone a site to build 14 condominiums in Virginia Beach. While the request was unanimously approved, Sessoms cast his vote without disclosing he had served as trustee on two loans obtained by Madison Landing in the months before the vote.

For a recap of Sessoms’ conflict-of-interest embroglios, click here.

Bacon’s bottom line: Once upon a time, shady politics used to be the province of big-city and rural-courthouse political machines. But suburban skullduggery has been on the rise ever since big-time real estate development raised the stakes in Virginia’s fast-growth counties. There is huge money in real estate development, and a thicket of laws, regulations and subsidies (in the form of transportation projects that create value for newly developed land) combined with aggressive NIMBYism creates incentives for developers and their political allies to take short cuts. It’s usually difficult to spot the conflicts of interest because so many real estate entities are privately held partnerships with minimal requirements for ownership disclosure.

We don’t need more laws and penalties, but Virginia could use more transparency. One good place to start would be to require real estate partnerships to publicly file ownership interests.

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19 responses to “The New Virginia Way

  1. The greatest corruption is when powerful business interests controlled by a few people gain control of the levers of government power, such as for example zoning and planning decisions, road and mass transit location and building, and authority over the tolling and pricing of those assets.

    Armed with these powers, and the ability to wield them unrestrained, then these few business interests, and the individuals who control them can enrich themselves and their business entities at huge public cost and damage.

    They can milk the public’s coffers four ways to Sunday.

    And they can reek great harm over an entire region. Traffic gridlock and theft of public roads, these are only two examples. Monopolistic practices over public services would now seem to be another. See for example:

    http://www.baconsrebellion.com/2015/12/a-moral-choice-economic-development-or-lower-medical-charges

  2. Virginia does need tougher laws. It needs more penalties.

    The part about corruption being something big cities and tiny towns did is simply not true although it sounds quaint. Virginia Beach was built as a giant suburb in the 1960s and 1970s due to massive corruption.

    • Peter is right. The only consistently successful cure for corruption is the incarceration of the corrupt. Rich people don’t mind paying fines. It’s a cost of doing business for some. Really rich guys will use their shareholder’s money to buy their way out of trouble with the help of politicians from both parties:

      http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-9-billion-witness-20141106

      But start putting bankers in jail and you suddenly find … far more honest bankers.

      Ask Martha Stewart how closely she reviews her stock trades these days.

  3. Ever wonder why Interstate 64 suddenly ends at its eastern terminus and goes into a toll road? It was designed that way to keep out federal highway inspectors.

    • Uh Peter, there are no tolls on US 58 and 460, or I664 at Bowers Hill. The only tolls on I264 are the newly installed (~ a year ago) going the other way at the Downtown Tunnel.

  4. well heckfire – if you outlaw corruption only outlaws will engage in it, eh?

    so what good are laws – if people break them?

    If you believe Don R – Virginia is one of the most corrupt states in the union and only the dumb and unlucky get caught while herds and herds continue their rape and pillage….

    some days, there is no question… about it…

    • The Virginia Way always has been dominated by a herd mentality, Larry.

    • One of the biggest supporters of corruption in Virginia is the Washington Post. So long as there is more spending and higher taxes, the Post will support any project irrespective of the corruption involved.

      As Chairman of the Fairfax County BoS, Gerry Connolly voted to put a new Silver Line metro station in front of his then employer, SAIC. How many times has the Post endorsed Connolly?

    • The corruption in Virginia is institutionalized in the government of Virginia. Without effective checks and balances among political branches of government, without any of the normal brakes other states put on lifetime incumbency there are far too few “circuit breakers” to corruption. Once and a while the feds get involved for particularly egregious violations but even the feds seem to generally take the attitude that if Virginia doesn’t care about the level of corruption in its government then why should they?

  5. The basic problem here: a banker lent money to a developer, then voted, as a local elected official (the Mayor), to approve the developer’s project.

    There was a day when bankers were expected to participate in the community, including, by running for election. Of course this whipped up a little business for the bank, too! But, the connection between the bank and the official was not hidden. It wasn’t even a cause for concern.

    Bankers were solicited as investors and board members in local developments because a banker’s name on a developer’s list of backers meant that the project was probably sound. The banker’s reputation as well as his money was at stake. It was a vote of confidence that ordinary folks could “take to the bank” by investing in the stock and bonds of corporations they could not otherwise understand, formed to carry out what might otherwise be seen as just another “fly-by-night” deal.

    So that’s a “conflict of interest”? That was precisely the point! The intertwining of the banker’s and the developer’s interests was sought after, and relied upon, and considered desirable.

    Now, the bank forbids it. The government forbids it. We the people forbid it. If you want to know who is backing a big development, you have no choice but to rely on public records of ownership. Assuming they even exist, the reporting of such information is so spotty that you are on your own when it comes to digging out the truth about who benefits. If you want an informed elected official with a personal stake in the community, you’re out of luck; local politicians aren’t supposed to be involved in business at the same time; even having business experience makes a candidate suspect. Finding out who’s behind a development wouldn’t help you anyway because you couldn’t invest directly; projects today are financed privately, not funded by public subscription.

    Jim, I agree with you, more transparency (particularly for real estate and other business partnerships) would be a good thing today. But I invite you also to reflect upon the societal changes that have made that necessary . . . including the deliberate removal of bankers like Will Sessoms from “conflicts of interest” that our grandparents used to look for, and expect, and depend upon. It’s not just the Virginia Way that has changed.

    • You shouldn’t simultaneously be a banker and the mayor of Virginia’s largest city. Gerry Connolly should not have been allowed to simultaneously be an SAIC executive and a BoS member voting on Metro decision which benefitted SAIC.

      Not only should there be a separation of church and state but there should also be a separation of state and private enterprise.

  6. so… the theory is – … it’s “ok” to have “conflicts” – as long as you disclose them???

    right?

    I’d be okay with the Statement of Economic Interests if it were online and required to be kept up to date within 24hrs.

    Remember how the McDonnells danced around that disclosure?

    “Under cross-examination Monday, McDonnell agreed that his wife had lied to him about repurchasing Star Scientific stock in January 2012. Earlier, she had bought it with part of a $50,000 loan from Williams and then sold it before the end of the previous year. Prosecutors say she sold the shares in December 2011 so the governor would not have to disclose them on his annual statement of economic interests.”

    http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/government-politics/article_cb616f18-0b9f-5084-b53d-455a0275c750.html

  7. There were tolls at the va b border for decades

    • So we need to go back to that era? Tolls at all borders; roads that take a day to travel 120 miles? You were born into your community, your “place”; you couldn’t leave; but, who wanted to? You knew everyone in your own community, virtues and faults and secrets alike; you lived in a community where nothing was private and everything depended upon your reputation; you invested like the savvy folk and bankers did, and rode the wave with them (or went down with them). You went along with what your betters advised.

      Right! God forbid we should return to the 1870s. God forbid we should perpetuate the old ways in politics that so ill-served the public even when that was the whole way of things. All I’m asking is, some recognition that that is the background, that is where Sessoms’ conflict of interest came from. In the past it was not only normal, but intentional. First Lady McDonnell had no such excuse.

  8. Yes, if you are going to have a citizen legislature and part time local governing bodies, then it is inevitable that there will be conflicts of interest. And to some extent that is the whole idea, that the lawmakers are equally invested in the community and thus will act to benefit everybody, and will apply their own knowledge and experience to the job. I still have not taken the time to dig into what Hizzoner allegedly did, but I suspect mainly he just failed to disclose some relationships that he should have discussed, and perhaps should have abstained on some votes that otherwise would still have turned out the same way.

    So far there is no indication that anybody hired his bank or hired him in exchange for a vote, or paid for his daughter’s wedding or gave him a Rolex, so I’m not losing a whole lot of sleep over deep corruption in this case. Local government is largely about zonings, special use permits and local business incentives and it always bears watching, but if everybody is up front about it, the process can work well. Like Acbar I think we lose something if the rules get ridiculous.

    And Larry, the loopholes in the current disclosure laws are too numerous to print in this column. If would even be a long post for YOU!

  9. To serve on a citizens advisory committee to a metro area transportation planning board, individuals must promise to disclose any conflict of interest and then recuse oneself from voting. And these entities are present across the United States as requirement to obtain any federal transportation money. Is it too much to expect elected officials to do the same? Or, for high level offices, put one’s assets in a blind trust?

  10. re: too many loopholes

    touche!

    however something basic like disclosure of economic interests is totally perverted when it’s a once a year snapshot… rather than online and with a 24hr requirement to represent changes.

    what we have is a facade – with so many holes in it that the folks subject to it – regard it with contempt… as well as the gullible public who think it really has meaning.

    it’s just a game for those subject to it – to dial up the appropriate loophole…

    • Point well taken. There is no reason financial disclosure information cannot be made electronically and updated within 48 hours.

      • TMT – it’s far worse … if I understand it correctly – it only has to represent the facts – once a year. Everything in between is not reported unless it stays in place to the end of the year.

        Maureen McDonnell was working off of that exact premise.

        how many others do the same thing?

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