Category Archives: Governance reform

Amateur Hour at the General Assembly

virginia_state_capitol502By Peter Galuszka

If you are an ordinary Virginian with deep concerns about how the General Assembly passes laws that impact you greatly, you are pretty much out of luck.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Transparency Virginia, an informal coalition of non-profit public interest groups in a report released this week. Their findings  came after members studied how the 2015 General Assembly operated.

Among their points:

  • Notice of committee hearings was so short in some instances that public participation was nearly impossible.
  • Scores of bills were never given hearings.
  • In the House of Delegates, committees and subcommittees did not bother to record votes on 76 percent of the bills they killed.

“Despite a House rule that all bills shall be considered, not all are. Despite a Senate rule that recorded votes are required, not all are,” states the 21-page report, whose main author is Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Transparency Virginia is made up of 30 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, the the Virginia Education Association and the League of Women Voters in Virginia.

The scathing report underscores just how amateurish the General Assembly can be. It only meets for only 45 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. The pay is pin money. Delegates make only $17,640 a year and senators earn $18,000 annually.

It is not surprising then that a part-time group of 100 delegates and 40 senators can’t seem to handle their 101 committees and subcommittees that determine whether the consideration of thousands bills proceeds fairly and efficiently.

“A Senate committee chair did not take comment on any bills on the agenda except for the testimony from the guests of two senators who were presenting bills,” the report states. In other cases, legislators were criticized by colleagues for having too many witnesses. Some cut off ongoing debate by motioning to table bills. Bills were “left in committee” never to be considered.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires that open public meetings be announced three working days in advance. A General Assembly session is considered one, long open session. But the FOIA is often subverted by sly legislators who manipulate the agendas of committees or subcommittees or general sessions.

Agendas of the General Assembly are not covered by the FOIA because there is too much work to cram in 45 or 60 days. In the case of local and state governments, similar meetings are, presumably because they meet more regularly. House and Senate rules do not stipulate how much notice needs to be given before a committee or subcommittee session. So, crucial meetings that could kill a bill are sometimes announced suddenly.

The setup favors professional lobbyists who stand guard in the Capitol ready to swoop in to give testimony and peddle influence, alerted by such tools as “Lobbyist-in-a-Box” that tracks the status of bills as they proceed through the legislature. When something important is up, their beepers go off while non-lobbyist citizens with serious interests in bills may be hours away by car.

The report states: “While most of Virginia’s lobbyists and advocates are never more than a few minutes from the statehouse halls, citizens and groups without an advocacy presence may need to travel long distances.” Some may need to reschedule work or family obligations, yet they may get only two hours’ notice of an important meeting. That’s not enough time if they live more than a two-hour drive from Richmond.

The report didn’t address ethics, but this system it portrays obviously favors lobbyists who benefit from Virginia’s historically light-touch approach when it comes to limited gifts. That issue will be addressed today when the General Assembly meets to consider Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s insistence that a new ethics bill address the problem of allowing consecutive gifts of less than $100 to delegates or senators.

The only long-term solution is for Virginia to consider creating a legislature that works for longer periods, is better paid, more professional and must adhere to tighter rules on bill passage. True, some 24 states have a system somewhat like Virginia and only New York, Pennsylvania and California have truly professional legislatures.

The current system was created back in Virginia was more rural and less sophisticated. But it has grown tremendously in population and importance. It’s a travesty that Virginia is stuck with amateur hour when it comes to considering legislation crucial to its citizens’ well-being.

Jonnie R. Williams’ Mansion on Market for $4.9m

Williams

Williams

 By Peter Galuszka

It might be right out of the “Lifestyles of Richmond’s Rich and Famous.”

A trust controlled by Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the glad-handing vitamin salesman who was the chief witness against former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen, has put his 14,700 square foot mansion along with 61 acres of land up for sale for $4.9 million.

I have the story here in Style Weekly.
“1 Starwood Lane” has six bedroom suits, a paneled “executive” study, a pool, a gazebo, a billiards and media room and (what the truly wealthy really need) a state-of-the-art security vault. There must be trouble in paradise however, because the realtor says it was originally listed as a $5.5 million purchase with just the mansion and 28 acres of property. Later, they threw in 35 acres more and dropped the price.

Williams, who got immunity from prosecution for his testimony for the McDonnell trial and another, unrelated one involving securities fraud, has apparently left the Richmond area where his former company Star Scientific moved from Henrico County after renaming itself Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals. He gave the McDonnells $177,000 in cash, loans, gifts and stock in exchange for influence in peddling his products, according to testimony at the six-week trial last year.

The McDonnells were convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud and other felonies. McDonnell got two years and his wife was sentenced to a year and a day. They are appealing.

The McDonnell’s who have separated sold their home in a Short Pump subdivision. It was listed at $944,000 and sold in a week. Williams’ mansion is in the middle of the high cotton Hermitage Golf Course in Goochland County.

For more details, click on Style.

Serious Bad-Asses

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

No Bacon family trip to London would be complete without a visit to the British Museum, which has one of the greatest collections of antiquities in the world. And no visit to the British Museum  would be permissible without a couple of hours devoted to the Greco-Roman section.

I learned two things from my visit  First, I came away with a better understanding of how Greek culture was transmitted to Rome. I had always assumed that Rome absorbed Greek mythology, art and other cultural attributes when it conquered the Greek-speaking Macedonians, Seleucids and Ptolemies (Cleopatra, anyone?) with their great cities of Athens, Antioch and Alexandria. In fact, the Greek influence had begun far earlier — when Rome conquered the Greek city states of Taranto (on the mainland) and Syracuse (in Sicily) two centuries before. The Greeks had colonized southern Italy long before the Romans had gotten around to conquering it. The term “Phyrric victory” comes from the Greek General Phyrrus of Epirus (in Greece proper) who aligned himself with the Greeks on the Italian peninsula and whose tactical military victories were so costly that he lost the war. Later, when Hannibal crossed the Alps and hoped to conquer Rome, he allied himself with the recently conquered Gauls in the north of the Italian peninsula and with the old Greek city-states in the south. It took the Romans twenty years to chase him out. Anyway, the Romans ended up borrowing much of their culture from their conquered Greek holdings.

Bad-ass emperor... the Dude looks like he coud have taken on Mike  Tyson

This Dude looks like he could have taken out Mike Tyson

The second thing I learned was that some of the Roman emperors were serious bad-asses. The British Museum didn’t put it that way. But you can just tell by looking at their marble busts.

The portrait at top is of Septimius Severus, generally regarded as one of Rome’s five “good” emperors in the late 2nd/early 3rd century — at the peak of the empire. I forgot to take down the names of the other two, but they both rose to power through the military. You could not climb to the top of the heap of the Roman army and defeat two or three rival generals for the emperor slot in a bloody civil war without being a serious bad-ass. And the dude above looks like he could have chewed up modern American leaders like George Bush or Barack Obama and picked his teeth with their bones.

You don't mess around with this guy. And no matter how bad it bothers you, you do NOT mention that it looks like he's got a booger hanging from his right nostril.

You don’t mess around with this guy. And no matter how bad it bothers you, you do NOT mention that it looks like he’s got a booger hanging from his right nostril. (Click to see a close-up.)

This fellow doesn’t look like he takes a lot of guff either.

I’ll tell you this, Rome spent spilled a lot of blood and treasure fighting the Iranians (back then, they were called the Parthians). If the Parthians had been working on a nuclear bomb (or whatever the equivalent would have been in the 2nd century A.D., like a catapult that hurled two-ton rocks), I have no doubt they would have marched right over there and kicked some serious butt. Whether they would have marched back alive or not is another question.

– JAB

A New, Improved Ken Cuccinelli?

ken-cuccinelliBy Peter Galuszka

Is one-time conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli undergoing a makeover?

The hard line former Virginia attorney general who lost a bitter gubernatorial race to Terry McAuliffe in 2013 is now helping run an oyster farm and sounding warning alarms about a rising police state.

This is remarkable switch from the man who battled a climatologist in court over global warming; tried to prevent children of illegal immigrants born in this country from getting automatic citizenship; schemed to shut down legal abortion clinics; tried to keep legal protection away from state gay employees; and wanted to arm Medicaid investigators with handguns.

Yet on March 31, Cuccinelli was the co-author with Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia of an opinion column in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Their piece pushes bipartisan bills passed by the General Assembly that would limit the use of drones and electronic devices to read and record car license plate numbers called license plate readers or LPRs.

Cuccinelli and Gastanaga say that McAuliffe may amend the bills in ways that would expand police powers instead of protect privacy. “The governor’s proposed amendments to the LPR bills gut privacy protections secured by the legislation,” they write. The governor’s amendments would extend the time police could keep data collected from surveillance devices and let police collect and save crime-related data from drones used during flights that don’t involve law enforcement, they claim.

When not protecting Virginians from Big Brother, Cuccinelli’s been busy oyster farming. He has helped start a farm for the tasty mollusks on the historic Chesapeake Bay island of Tangier. According to an article in The Washington Post, Cuccinelli got involved when he was practicing law in Prince William County after he left office.

He would visit the business and get roped into working at odd jobs. He apparently enjoyed the physical labor and the idea that oysters are entirely self-sustaining and help cleanse bay water.

Environmentalists scoff at the idea, noting that as attorney general, Cuccinelli spent several years investigating Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist who noted that humans were responsible for the generation of more carbon dioxide emissions and that has brought on climate change.

Some have pointed out that if Cuccinelli had had his way, he would have helped quash climate science, generated even more global warming and sped up the inundation of Tangier Island by rising water levels.

It will be interesting to see if Cuccinelli intends to rebrand himself for future political campaigns and how he tries to reinvent himself.

Cruz, “Liberty” and Teletubbies

AP CRUZ A USA VA By Peter Galuszka

Where’s the “Liberty” in Liberty University?

The Christian school founded by the controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell required students under threat of a $10 “fine” and other punishments to attend a “convocation” Monday where hard-right U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president.

Thus, Liberty produced a throng of people, some 10,000 strong, to cheer on Cruz who wants to throttle Obamacare, gay marriage, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and blunt immigration reform.

Some students stood up to the school for forcing them to become political props. Some wore T-Shirts proclaiming their support of libertarian Rand Paul while others protested the university’s coercion. “I just think it’s unfair. I wouldn’t say it’s dishonest, but it’s approaching dishonesty,” Titus Folks, a Liberty student, told reporters.

University officials, including Jerry Falwell, the son of the late founder, claim they have the right as a private institution to require students to attend “convocations” when they say so. But it doesn’t give them the power to take away the political rights of individual students not to be human displays  in a big and perhaps false show.

There’s another odd issue here. While Liberty obviously supports hard right Tea Party types, the traditional Republican Party in the state is struggling financially.

Russ Moulton, a GOP activist who helped Dave Brat unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last summer, has emailed party members begging them to come up with $30,000 to help the cash-strapped state party.

GOP party officials downplay the money problem, but it is abundantly clear that the struggles among Virginia Republicans are as stressed out as ever. Brat won in part because he cast himself as a Tea Party favorite painting Cantor as toady for big money interests. The upset drew national attention.

Liberty University has grown from a collection of mobile homes to a successful school, but it always has had the deal with the shadow of its founder. The Rev. Falwell gained notoriety over the years for putting segregationists on his television show and opposing gay rights, going so far as to claim that “Teletubbies,” a cartoon production for young children, covertly backed homosexual role models.

Years ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story showing that the Rev. Falwell took liberties in promoting the school he founded in 1971. Brochures touting the school pictured a downtown Lynchburg bank building with the bank’s logo airbrushed off. This gave the impression that Liberty was thriving with stately miniature skyscrapers for its campus.

Some observers have noted that Liberty might be an appropriate place for the outspoken Cruz to launch his campaign. The setting tends to blunt the fact that he’s the product of an Ivy League education – something that might not go down too well with Tea Party types – and that he was actually born in Canada, although there is no question about his U.S. citizenship and eligibility to run for question.

Hard-line conservatives have questioned the eligibility of Barack Obama to run for U.S. president although he is likewise qualified.

With Cruz in the ring and Liberty cheering him, it will make for an interesting campaign.

Another Russian Reformer Murdered

nemtsov killedBy Peter Galuszka

It was a personal shocker to read of the murder in Moscow of Russian reformer Boris Nemtsov, the latest in a long string of killings related to the tragic fight for change in that country.

Nemtsov was gunned down Friday in a drive-by shooting as he walked across Moskvoretsky Bridge a short distance from the Kremlin and Red Square.

The outspoken 55-year-old former nuclear physicist turned government official was a key figure in the far more hopeful years of the early 1990s when bright young people tried (in vain) to move Russia beyond the kleptocracy of the Communist era.

Nemtsov pushed capitalist reforms by trying to root out corruption. He simplified establishing businesses by taking the registration process out of the hands of crooked bureaucrats. He advocated transparency in bidding contracts. More recently, he revealed billions of dollars in payoffs at the Russian Winter Olympics last year at Sochi.

Naturally, Nemtsov ran afoul of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who beat out Nemtsov as Boris Yeltsin’s successor. Putin is the spearhead of the old power elite that has seized control over the past 15 years, rolled back democratic reforms, unleashed a torrent of inside business deals, and pushed the worst military conflict in the region (Crimea and Ukraine) since the Cold War.

Nemtsov was due to lead a Moscow protest rally against Putin’s bloody Ukrainian adventurism that has killed 5,800 people. He was to stand in for Alexei Navalny another reformer who has been imprisoned for handing out leaflets at a subway station.

As he was taking a walk on an unusually warm winter evening, a car drove up. Six shots were fired. Nemtsov was killed by four bullets.

He is the fifth person – either Russian or foreign – that I have dealt with personally who has been murdered. I reported from Moscow for BusinessWeek in the 1980s and 1990s.

Here are a few examples: American businessman Paul Tatum involved in a dispute with a Chechen partner was slain by 11 bullets to the head and neck at a subway station that I used to frequent. Paul Klebnikov, an American editor of Russian-language Forbes magazine, was shot near his apartment. Russian investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikin, a friend who got me an assignment to write for Literaturnaya Gazetta, died in an apparent poisoning.

I had interviewed Nemtsov back when he was pushing far-reaching and radical change in the the city of Nizhniy Novgorod, formerly known as Gorky, east of Moscow.

He is the highest-profile reformer to be killed during the regime of Putin who says it was a contract killing and that he will oversee the investigation “personally.”

Government Fragmentation and Economic Growth

fragmentation

by James A. Bacon

What are the secrets of successful metropolitan regions? According to conventional economic-development thinking here in Virginia, success hinges upon the ability to maintain a positive business climate, a concept that encompasses everything from tax rates to the tort system, the transportation network to the education level of the workforce. But a new publication by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “The Metropolitan Century,” identifies a critical variable rarely discussed in Virginia: the fragmentation of municipal governance.

Metropolitan regions characterized by higher levels of municipal fragmentation tend to experience lower economic growth rates than metros with less fragmentation, contends the OECD report, as seen in the chart above. Metropolitan regions run the gamut in the degree of fragmentation, from the United Kingdom with an average of 0.4 municipalities per 100,000 residents to the Czech Republic with an average of 2.43 per 100,000. All other things being equal, the report says, “For each doubling in the number of municipalities per 100,000 inhabitants within a metropolitan area, labour productivity in the metropolitan area decreases by 5-6%.”

(I would surmise that the number of municipalities in Virginia falls in the “moderately low” category. For example, the 1.7 million inhabitants of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area are governed by 16 jurisdictions, including two in North Carolina, or slightly less than 1.0 per 100,000 population.)

Fragmented government inhibits economic growth through its impact on transportation and land use, suggests the OECD report. The inability to plan regionally can result in “sub-optimal provision of transportation infrastructure” that falls short of its potential to provide the connectivity required by a productive, growing regional economy.

In the context of large urban agglomerations, land use planning and transport planning are often the fields where the need for co-ordination is greatest. … Housing and commercial developments need to be well connected to other parts of the urban agglomeration, and public transport in turn relies on a minimum population density to operate efficiently.

Integrating transport and land-use planning makes it easier to utilize value-capture tools for financing transportation infrastructure. “Public spending for infrastructure increases the price of adjacent land,” states the report. “Often, this price increase provides a publicly funded windfall profit to land owners or developers. Land-value capture tools aim at recapturing these windfalls from developers in order to (partially) fund the infrastructure investment.”

Echoing arguments that EM Risse made on this blog years ago, the OECD report observes that administrative borders in metropolitan areas have not evolved in concert with economic and social patterns.

While good governance structures are no guarantee for good policies, it is very difficult to design and implement good policies without them. … Administrative borders in metropolitan areas rarely correspond to these functional relations. Often, they are based on historical settlement patterns that no longer reflect human activities.

A few decades ago, there was a move in Virginia to consolidate cities and counties in order to achieve administrative efficiencies and economies of scale. There were some notable successes — Virginia Beach merged with Princess Anne County, Suffolk merged with Nansemond County — but the movement petered out.  The OECD report spelled out reasons for resistance to consolidation that apparently apply across the economically developed world:

Common reasons for the persistence of administrative borders are strong local identities and high costs of reforms, but also vested interests of politicians and residents. Even if policy makers try to reorganize local governments according to functional relations within urban agglomerations, it is often difficult to identify unambiguous boundaries between functionally integrated areas.

There doesn’t seem to be any appetite for consolidating local governments in Virginia, but the OECD report does suggest an alternate strategy: Identifying specific functions that can be transferred to regional authorities.

Would it be worth the effort to invest political capital in such endeavors? Take a look at the chart at the top of this post. The big dividing line in economic growth is between medium-low and medium-high fragmentation. Assuming Virginia metropolitan regions fall into the medium-low category — and I do confess that I do not know exactly what the dividing line is — there doesn’t seem to be much of a growth premium from consolidating our way into “low fragmentation” status. Indeed, I would argue that some competition between jurisdictions in a metropolitan area is a good thing — the ability of inhabitants to “vote with their feet” helps keep the politicians honest.

But that’s a shoot-from-the-hip reaction based upon one OECD chart. If Virginia is serious about positioning itself for economic prosperity in the years ahead, our governance structures, rooted in 19th-century settlement patterns, surely need to keep up with economic reality.

“Hacking for Good” Comes to Virginia

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the "hack for good" movement spreading across the U.S.

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the “hack for good” movement spreading across the U.S.

by James A. Bacon

Michael Kolbe experienced first-hand the power of data-driven election campaigning while working on the 2012 Obama re-election team. He went on to take a job as a strategy analyst for Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Richmond but didn’t discard his idealism. Hoping to harness the power of data to solve social problems, he joined others to bring the burgeoning civic hacking movement to Richmond last year.

His first “hackathon” fizzled, Kolbe concedes. The goal was to create a “where’s my school bus” app for the City of Richmond schools, adapting open code developed elsewhere. Despite initial enthusiasm, school officials “went radio silent” and Kolbe and his compatriots didn’t have a strong enough team to push the project through. “It just fell apart.”

Learning from that inauspicious beginning, Kolbe tried again. The results of his efforts could be seen Saturday in Code for RVA’s code-a-thon held at INM United’s warehouse-chic office building in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. This time, more than 60 participants worked on a half-dozen projects to make local government data more accessible and useful to citizens.

This time Kolbe had time to build an organization and line up sponsors and alliances. The Richmond hack-a-thon was held as part of a national CodeAcross event organized in dozens of cities across the United States by San Francisco-based Code for America. Code for America dispatched a team to help organize the Richmond event. Socrata, a Seattle-based open-data company, created a portal to which the Richmond hackers could add their data. Code for RVA also found a local champion for its open-government projects in Andreas Addison, a self-described “civic innovator” for the City of Richmond.

“This meeting wouldn’t have happened two years ago,” said Addison, who has led the effort to bring data analytics to City of Richmond decision making. “Things are changing.”

Even the governor’s office is getting on board. Zaki Barzinji, deputy director for intergovernmental affairs in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s policy shop, said the administration hopes to work with Code for America, Virginia universities, state agencies and local Code for America “brigades” like Code for RVA to organize a statewide conclave with the goal of driving open data and cultural change in state government.

Most of the projects undertaken Saturday were simple, aiming to make existing data more accessible to the public. One team worked on creating RVA Answers, a Web resource providing answers to most frequently asked questions. Another team tackled the goal of making data about city boards & commissions more readily available, including information on how to apply for a position. Yet another group worked on improving the display of city crime data.

The most ambitious project, long in the works, is an initiative to address the spread of STIs (socially transmitted infections), especially among the city’s poor and young. The city has pulled together a multi-disciplinary team to organize and analyze existing data, supplemented by insight gleaned by interviewing poor people and shadowing government health workers. The mission is to encourage people to get tested for STIs and to direct them to locations in their neighborhoods where they can do it.

This initiative will not likely wither on the vine — Danny Avula, deputy director of the city health department, is pushing the project forward. “A lot of people in government don’t get it,” Avula said, speaking of the use of data analytics. “But there are advocates now.”

Open data sounds great in the abstract, but civic hackers often face indifference or resistance. When the McAuliffe administration launched its open data portal last year, said Barzinji, it encountered a tendency among state agencies to keep their data to themselves.  The administration started small, asking each agency to share at least one data set. Once the value of public data can be demonstrated, he said, he expects the agencies to loosen up.

Never under-estimate the role of simple bureaucratic inertia. Mike Walls, IT strategy manager for the City of Richmond, noted that government IT departments are focused on the core mission of “just keeping the lights on.” Top priorities are making sure payroll is met, bills are paid and basic functions work. “You can’t have the network go down. You can’t have the emergency dispatching software crash. It creates a very cautious mindset.”

In his experience, Walls said, IT bureaucrats aren’t opposed to releasing data to the public as much as they are overwhelmed by their existing responsibilities. They see the task of opening up data as more work. “When your day job grinds you down, it’s hard to find the enthusiasm.”

Another issue, said Walls, is that data can’t just be dumped willy nilly into public databases. When data reveals information about individuals, public access may raise privacy issues. Often there are technical issues as well. Data is typically compiled to the standard of “good enough for the intended purpose,” not for a purpose someone might dream up later. As a consequence, mashing up, say, land use data calibrated to difference levels of accuracy might lead to absurd results like fire hydrants appearing in the middle of a street.

But civic tech advocates expressed optimism that the obstacles can be overcome. Small victories lead to larger victories. Said Barzinji: “First what we need is the proof of concept.” Then the push for legislation and executive action can follow.

The McDonnell Saga Is Far From Over

maureen mcdonnell sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

Former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell has been sentenced to 12 months and a day in federal prison, but the GiftGate saga is far from over.

She will appeal as has her husband, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who was sentenced to two years in prison last month. The now estranged couple was convicted of public corruption felonies, making McDonnell the only Virginia governor, past or present, to be convicted of a crime.

The next step is for the former governor’s appeals to be heard at the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in May. The issue is whether so-called “honest services fraud” for which both were convicted, should be interpreted broadly or narrowly.

During their trial, U.S. District Judge James Spencer took the broad approach, instructing the jury that there did not have to be a very strict “quid pro quo” for them to return a guilty verdict. He reiterated his stand on Friday by overruling a slew of motions from the defense relating to the issue.

The appeals could have far-reaching consequences, as I reported with a colleague on Bloomberg News this week. Charles James, a former federal prosecutor who works at the Williams Mullen law firm in Richmond, says the case “could be the next case to further restrict the use” of the honest-services fraud statute.

If the Robert McDonnell’s appeal is successful, then it would have a big impact on his wife, as well as loosen the interpretation nationally of how far “honest services” should go.

If the government is successful, then expect a crackdown on public official hankie-pankie.

At Friday’s sentencing, eight character witnesses described Ms. McDonnell, 60, as an empathetic, self-sacrificing woman who would do anything for her children and husband.

That image stands in marked contrast to the image defense lawyers for her husband painted during the trial. Incredibly, her own lawyers piled on with the idea that Maureen McDonnell was a naïve but abusive woman who hated being First Lady. She was so frustrated with her husband ignoring her for his political career that she got entangled with Jonnie (the serpent) Williams, who ran Star Scientific, a Henrico company that made and marketed vitamin supplements.

Williams gave the financially strapped McDonnells about $177,000 in gifts, loans and trips while the McDonnells set up meetings with state officials to the products of his money-losing firm. Ironically, the main product was Anatabloc, a skin cream, which has since been ordered off the market the Food and Drug Administration.

At the top of this blog, you see a teaser story that the convictions were corrupted by Williams’ dubious integrity. That’s nonsense, of course. Prosecutors use inside testimony, especially in organized crime and drug cases, all the time.

The bigger issue is whether “honest services” means bribery or whether it is a normal part of setting up appointments by public officials to consider projects that might benefit their city, state or country. This will be the key issue in the appeals.

Meanwhile, the soap opera has been weirdly painful, fascinating and entertaining. It’s also been rather crass. The former governor tries to come off like a Boy Scout yet refused a chance to cop a plea in exchange for Maureen not being indicted at all. She was not a public official, but non-public officials have been convicted in the past of honest services fraud.

Both defense teams made Maureen the scapegoat. She was portrayed as a greedy and unstable hustler who brought her husband down.

Before delivering the sentence to Maureen, who gave a tearful, first-time statement asking for mercy, Spencer made bitingly critical remarks of the defense lawyers. “The ‘Let’s throw Momma under the bus’ defense morphed into the ‘Let’s throw Momma off the train defense,’” he said. Ms. McDonnell seemed to be two very different people and Spencer had trouble figuring it out.

Her lawyers had asked for no prison time and 4,000 hours of community service. Federal guidelines could have given her more than six years but prosecutors asked for only 18 months in prison.

Spencer split the difference, mostly because he gave Mr. McDonnell a light sentence. He was more culpable since he was a public official, not to mention a former state prosecutor and the state attorney general.

He cut Maureen some slack, too. By sentencing her that extra day, he gave her the opportunity to get out in only 10 months for good behavior since that’s the rule under federal prison guidelines.

Look Who’s Disenfranchising Whom

Winning nominee Kevin Sullivan -- suspiciously white looking.

Winning nominee Kevin Sullivan — suspiciously white looking.

by James A. Bacon

Most would agree that the caucus method chosen by the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA) to pick a nominee to run in a snap election Jan. 13 for the 74th House of Delegates seat was less than, ahem, democratic. In the caucus, also known as a “firehouse primary,” only 50 or so local party committee officials were allowed to participate. They selected Kevin Sullivan, who wound up losing the general election to Joseph D. Morrissey, the former Democratic Party delegate who resigned his seat after being convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and then running as an independent.

Did the nomination, a classic case of machine politics, discriminate against the predominantly African-American electorate of House District 74?

A lawsuit filed on behalf of David Lambert, son of long-time state Senator Benjamin Lambert, contends that the firehouse primary effectively disenfranchised African-American voters who comprise approximately 60% of the roughly 53,500 registered voters of the district, which encompasses 26 precincts in Henrico County, three in Charles City County and one in the City of Richmond. The candidate selected by the process, Kevin Sullivan, was white. For that matter, so is Morrissey.

I’m not sure I buy the argument in the brief filed by attorney J. Paul Gregorio in Federal District Court, but I think the case deserves an airing. At the very least, it should serve as a cautionary tale to Democrats who have charged Republicans with disenfranchising African-Americans — or, to paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden when speaking in Virginia during the recent presidential election, “putting y’all back in chains” — for the offense of enacting Voter ID laws.

Lambert, one of three plaintiffs in the lawsuit, wanted to be a candidate in the nominating process. But, according to the suit, “the required $1500 mandatory, nonfundable filing fee, and the lack of any alternative means for a candidate to get on the nomination ballot without paying this fee, worked to deny him ballot access.”

That fee, while not specifically prohibited, was against the spirit of Democratic Party rules, which states that no fee be charged for the right to vote at a caucus. Voting isn’t the same as running for nomination, but that might strike some as a fine distinction. Democratic Party rules declare that “full participation by all Democrats in all phases of … nominating procedures” is to be granted whenever possible.

The firehouse primary rules took away the right to vote and disenfranchised all these Democrats – overwhelmingly African American – except for those considered to be ‘members in good standing'” of local Democratic committees, the lawsuit alleges. And even those committee members had to pay mandatory fees for the privilege of serving on the committees. The fee of the Charles City County committee was mandatory. Henrico committee members also were expected to pay a fee, although they could apply for a waiver.

The lawsuit also took issue with the disproportionate representation of Charles City County committee officials among those allowed to vote in the caucus. Democrats in Charles City County accounted for only 9% of the votes cast in the 2013 House of Delegates election, yet they had nearly as many participants in the firehouse primary as Henrico County, which accounted for 88% of the vote. Not one committee member from the City of Richmond participated, the suit alleges, effectively disenfranchising the 1,441 registered voters there.

Continues the lawsuit:

The DPVA, operating through the Nominating Committee, wanted to prevent a sizeable, identifiable group of African America Democrats from exercising their right to vote, their right of political speech, their right of association, and such other rights enabling them to act individually and together in order to choose the individual they wanted as the nominee of their party. …

The DPVA, operating through the Nominating Committee, feared this group of African Americans, who were not members of a local democratic party, might use their First Amendment rights to support a candidate the DPVA and other local party officials didn’t want to win the Democratic nomination. Therefore the firehouse primary rules were intentionally designed to disenfranchise them all.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the Democratic Party firehouse primary rule to be in violation of the the U.S. Constitution and to prohibit its use in the future. The suit also asks for a judgment against the mandatory imposition of the $1,500 filing fee.

Bacon’s bottom line. To my mind, the logic of the lawsuit essentially boils down to this: The firehouse primary had a disparate impact on African-Americans, therefore it amounted to unconstitutional discrimination. Yet consider: Dwight Jones, mayor of Richmond and state chair of the DPVA, is African-American. Many of the party committee members who participated in the primary undoubtedly are African-American. (I don’t know this for a fact, but it stands to reason if 60% of the voters are African-American, most of the committee members are as well.) If anything, this is a case of the political elite, which happens to be African-American, manipulating the political process to do an end run around the electorate, which also happens to be African-American. It isn’t racial discrimination — it’s brass knuckle politics.

However, the charges couldn’t be delivered against a nicer group of people. The plaintiffs are subjecting the DPVA to the same kind of logic — equating disparate impact with discrimination — that the DPVA and DPVA office holders apply to the Republicans (Voter ID laws) and businesses (discrimination in hiring) every day. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Should the Democratic Party open up the process to everyone? Of course it should. So should Republicans. Does its failure to do so violate the Constitution? I’m no constitutional scholar, but I’m not buying it.