Category Archives: Governance reform

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.

Why Is GMU Stonewalling?

stone_wallby James A. Bacon

Two months ago, Jagadish Shukla, a George Mason University professor, was one of twenty climate scientists to affix their signatures to a letter calling for a federal investigation into “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.” It was imperative, stated the letter, that “these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate.”

Outraged by the assault on free speech, climate skeptics brought to light some troubling facts about Shukla’s activities. Not only did Shukla take in $250,000 in salary and compensation from GMU, he paid himself $314,000 in 2014 as president of the Institute for Global Environment and Society (IGES), the recipient of generous federal grants, and that doesn’t include the $146,000 salary paid to his wife Anastasia Shukla.

A month ago, the controversy jumped from the Internet to the political realm when Congress got involved. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, sent a letter informing Shukla that it was “foreseeable” that the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology would investigate him, along with IGES, for using science-research monies provided by taxpayers while participating in partisan political activity. Although Shukla later stated that he signed the letter in a personal capacity, he did identify himself as a GMU professor, and he did post the letter on the IGES website.

The Smith letter asked Shukla/IGES to preserve a “full and complete record of relevant communications” should the Committee decide to request documents. The request encompassed all e-mail, electronic documents, and datacreated since January 1, 2009. The congressman also asked Shukla to exercise reasonable efforts to notify employees, former employees, contractors and third parties to do the same.

Shukla is a high-profile member of the GMU faculty, whose combined salary/compensation exceeds that of GMU’s president and makes him among the highest-paid professors at the university, if not the highest paid. If you’re looking for a local hook on this story, Shukla serves on Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission, which is making recommendations to the governor regarding state climate change-related policy.

While the Congressional committee seems to be focused on Shukla, I would suggest that certain questions should be put to his employer, George Mason University.

  • What is GMU’s policy regarding faculty drawing salaries from outside organizations?
  • Did Shukla disclose to GMU that he and his wife were drawing salaries from IGES?
  • Did GMU review the arrangement to ensure that it complied with the university’s disclosure requirements, conflict-of-interest guidelines and other rules?
  • Has GMU been alerted to the congressional request for Shukla and IGES employees to preserve all electronic documents?
  • Do any such documents reside on GMU servers, and what measures, if any, has GMU put into place to ensure that the documents are preserved?
  • Has GMU “lawyered up”? Has Shukla “lawyered up?” If so, is GMU covering Shukla’s legal expenses?

Let’s crowd source this bad boy!

Contacting three separate people on the university’s communications team over the past three weeks, I have tried repeatedly to get answers from GMU. I received no answer from two spokepersons, and a non-responsive email response from a third. Clearly, GMU is stonewalling. To get answers of any kind, I apparently have no choice but to file FOIA requests. I expect that GMU will maintain that certain correspondence is privileged, either because it pertains to “employee” matters or “legal” matters. I get only one shot at this, and I want to make sure I craft the FOIA request correctly.

I would invite readers to crowd-source this story. If you dig up something worthwhile through Internet research, or if you have suggestions on how to word the FOIA request, let me know in the comments.

How Not to Run a City

Will somebody please help this city?

Will somebody please help this city?

The bad news just keeps getting worse for the City of Richmond: An audit released yesterday of 98,000 transactions valued at $2 billion found significant delays to vendors, insufficient and inconsistent documentation and unrecorded wire transfers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. That report was presented alongside a second report, an assessment of Richmond’s fiscal sustainability that found that the city collects and spends 1 1/2 times the revenue per capita of benchmark localities.

“I look at it and say, ‘My gosh, we have a lot of inefficiencies here,’” said Ramon Brinkman, a member of the audit committee. “What could you save by reducing some of the expenses and give a little money back to the taxpayer?”

Richmond is an awesome city. It has wonderful people, great neighborhoods, historical architecture, vibrant businesses, a rich history, a multitude of museums, theaters, art galleries and cultural institutions, and one of the most beautiful rivers in the country. But it has a wasteful and inefficient city government that taxes too much and delivers too little in the way of municipal services.

Part of the city’s financial woes can be attributed to a flawed implementation of an $18  million RAPIDS financial system in 2013, which, according to the city’s deputy chief administrative officer, still suffers from “severe system limitations.” Another problem is the extensive staff turnover, insufficient training and heavy reliance upon inexperienced temps in the accounts receivable office. Those maladies, it would seem, are a reflection of poor management. Of course, there has been high turnover in senior staff positions as well, prompted no doubt by the frustrations encountered with the dismal organizational culture. Thus, the serpent swallows its tail in a never-ending loop of dysfunction.

Richmond has so much potential, but it will never live up to that potential until the city administration gets its act together. What will it take to make that happen? A mayor who makes organizational reform the unremitting focus of his or her attention over all other priorities.

— JAB

You Know Things Are Bad When the Turnaround Team Quits

Richmond city hall: out of control

Richmond city hall: out of control

City of Richmond finances are such a mess that Mayor Dwight Jones hired a special turnaround team around the beginning of the year to fix it. Now key members of that team, City Finance Director Paul Jez and Controller Leon Glaster, are bailing.

“I just realized that I wasn’t the right fit for the city at this particular point in time,” Jez told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I had reached the point that I wasn’t happy coming to work.” The challenges, he added, “are far greater than … I could have imagined. If I had known last year what I know today, I don’t know that I may have made a different decision.”

The city is months late in completing its 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. City officials have cited employee turnover, a lack of training and challenges in implementing a new financial system as reasons for missing the deadline. The city’s current external auditor, Cherry Bekaert, basically fired the city as a customer effective next year, citing a dysfunctional working environment.

Bacon’s bottom line: When the outside auditors and key players in the turnaround team quit, something is severely wrong in the City of Richmond administration. No longer is this a problem that Mayor Jones can delegate to someone else. He needs to forget about baseball stadiums, children’s hospitals and Redskins training grounds, and give his total unremitting focus to figuring out what’s broken and then fixing it. Richmond has seen more than its fair share of administrative scandals already. If city hall loses control of its finances, it loses control over every department in city hall.

— JAB

Capitalism Triumphs Again!

RAM clinic, Pikesville Ky., June 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

RAM clinic, Pikesville Ky., June 2011.
Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

If there were any questions about just how capitalism has failed, one need look no farther than Wise County, where, this week, hundreds, if not thousands, of people will line up for free medical care.

The event is ably noted in The Washington Post this Sunday by a young opinion writer named Matt Skeens who lives in Coeburn in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia.

This week, the Remote Area Medical clinic will come to the Wise County fairgrounds to offer free medical and dental care to anyone who needs it.

You might ask yourself a question: why do so many people in one of the parts of the United States that is fantastically wealthy with natural resources need free medical care? Where is the magic of capitalism so often lauded on this blog?

A few insights from Mr. Skeens:

“Local representatives of Southwest Virginia will travel to the fairgrounds to stand on a coal bucket and assure us they’re fighting against President Obama and the ‘war on coal.’ These politicians won’t mention that with their votes to block Medicaid expansion, they ensured that the lines at RAM won’t be getting any shorter. But hating Obama in these parts is good politickin.”

Skeens runs through a list of mountain folk who can’t afford health care. One is a breast cancer survivor who hasn’t had a screenings in years. His grandfather, a retired electrician and coal miner, had also camped out at RAM clinics to get help.

Odd that this is the way I found neighboring West Virginia when I moved there with my family from suburban Washington, D.C. in 1962. Just as it was then, the riches that should have helped pay for local medical care went out of state. Much of the coal left by railcar or barge. Now, natural gas released by hydraulic fracking will find its way to fast-growing Southeastern cities or perhaps overseas thanks to new proposed pipelines such as a $5 billion project pitched in part by Dominion Resources.

While I have never been to the Wise County RAM clinic, I did happen to drop by one in Pikesville, Ky., a coalfield area that is one is Kentucky’s poorest county. It is not far from Wise. I was busy researching a book on Richmond-based Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm, in June 2011.

Photographer Scott Elmquist and I were on our way from Kentucky to an anti-strip mining rally in West Virginia when we noticed the RAM signs. More than 1,000 people had started lining up at the doors around 1:30 a.m. at the local high school.

It was packed inside. A Louisville dental school had sent more than 50 dental chairs that lined the basketball court. Some of the patients said they were caught in a bind: they had jobs but didn’t have enough health coverage and couldn’t pay for what they needed.

Since then, there’s been some good news. Unlike Virginia, whose legislature has stubbornly refused to expand Medicaid to 400,000 residents who need it (supposedly in a move to tighten federal spending), Kentucky expanded Medicaid last year. Now, 375,000 more people have health insurance.

Not so in Virginia. People continue to suffer while those with comfortable lives laud the miraculous benefits of capitalism.

Memories of a Klan Rally

KlanersBy Peter Galuszka

I was looking through a some old clips today and spotted this Golden Oldie that ran in the Jan. 30, 2000 edition of BusinessWeek magazine where I worked for about 15 years. Bloomberg now owns rights to it and I hope they don’t mind me re-running it.

Mindful of the lofty rhetoric one reads on this blog about being Southern and symbols, I thought this might be an interesting read about how nothing is sacred. Not the Confederate Flag. Not even Stonewall Jackson.

It also shows how little things change. The flag and statues of Confederate generals are still flashpoint issues and people like GOP presidential candidate hopeful Donald Trump are running around making offensive statements about Mexican immigrants. (For the record, the late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia had been a Klan member early in his life and he later renounced his membership).

The Ku Klux Klan rally I covered was on Nov. 6, 1999.

Here goes:

Letter From West Virginia

The High Price of a Klan Rally

Studying me solemnly from across his desk, Thomas A. Keeley sighs and says in his West Virginia twang: “I have to take care of my people.” I kid Tom that he sounds like the sheriff who was battling coal-company thugs in the 1988 movie Matewan. Tom grins. He puts up with me, since we go back 35 years–to grade school here in Clarksburg, a town of 18,000 nestled in the hills of central West Virginia. Today, Tom, as president of the Harrison County Commission, is the county’s top elected official, and I’ve come to find out how he intends to take care of “his people” in what could be one of the biggest crises Clarksburg has ever faced.

In two days, the Knights of the White Kamellia, one of 55 units of the Ku Klux Klan, will hold a rally on the front steps of the Harrison County Courthouse in downtown Clarksburg. The Klan picked the spot because of its dramatic statue of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, born in Clarksburg in 1824. The Klan figures that Stonewall, riding north against the Yankees, will make a dandy prop for its November rally. So will the 70 state troopers, city police, and county deputies who will be providing the security. The Klan believes that the police presence not only will make it appear to be an oppressed group but will also increase the media coverage.

The city-county expense for the Clarksburg rally will be about $50,000–pin money compared with what 40 cities spent in 1999 hosting the Klan. Security at Cleveland’s August rally ran $600,000, although only 21 Klansmen showed up. But Harrison County is in the heart of the Appalachian poverty belt, and it desperately needs the money for other things. The hamlet of Marshville, for example, badly needs help, since its groundwater has been polluted by coal mines. “It’s costing us a lot of money to accommodate a bunch of white-trash bigots, and you can quote me on that,” says Tom, leaning back in his rumpled suit.

But he doesn’t have much choice. Not only is the Klan making noise, but a far more dangerous ultra-right-wing group is also active locally: the Mountaineer Militia, a cabal of heavily armed survivalists ready to fight what they consider excessive federal power. Militia members from the Clarksburg area hatched an Oklahoma City-style plot in 1996 to bomb the new $200 million FBI fingerprinting center in Clarksburg. The installation employs 3,000. After the FBI infiltrated the group, five men were convicted or pleaded guilty to explosives charges; one was convicted of selling blueprints of the center.

IDENTITY CRISIS. Taking a cue from New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has also had to deal with a Klan demonstration, Tom is forbidding the wearing of masks at the rally, figuring that fewer Klansmen will show up if they are not able to keep their identity secret. At this point, nobody is sure who they are. The only known Klansman is Cletus Norris, who wrote Tom the letter announcing the rally, using a post office box in Grafton, 20 miles to the east. Norris is a former road worker, once employed by the city. The next day, as I drive to Grafton in search of Norris, I try to recall if the Klan had been active when I lived here back in the 1960s.

In the Deep South at that time, the Klan was bombing black churches and killing civil-rights workers. But from what I remember, not much happened here. Besides, Klansmen in these parts traditionally weren’t so much antiblack (there were few blacks here) as anti-Catholic. That was in reaction to the Italian immigrants who streamed into the area in the 1800s to build the Baltimore & Ohio’s main line to St. Louis, taking jobs away from Protestant backwoods types. The animosity was resolved naturally over the years as boy met girl and both defied ethnic hostility. Today, largely due to intermarriage, 40% of local folk are of Italian descent.

As luck would have it, driving down a Grafton street, I spot a parked gray Dodge pickup with bumper stickers bearing Confederate flags and the slogan, “Racial Purity Equals American Security.” Bingo! I walk up the crumbling concrete stairs to a yellow clapboard house and knock on the door. A slim man with a reddish-blond beard answers. “I am the Grand Dragon,” confirms Cletus Norris. He invites me to sit in the warm autumn sun on the front porch of his parents’ house. The experience is unnerving because for an hour, this 33-year-old is talking softly, pleasantly, almost seductively, but is expounding truly hateful ideas. At one point, Norris asks gently, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” I reply: “No, but I am Catholic.” Norris says: “That’s O.K.”

A Klansman for five years, Norris claims his group is peaceful and interested only in protecting white rights. “Our rally,” Norris reassures me, “will set a lot of minds at ease. They’ll listen to us and see that we’re just normal Christian men.” Their agenda? “By the year 2040, we will be outnumbered by the combined nonwhite races of this country, and whites won’t get a fair shake.” The message is spreading through cyberspace. “We have some people in Europe and Australia, thanks to the Internet,” he says, as he hushes a dog barking inside the house. Norris insists he doesn’t hate blacks, only “race-mixing.” As for Mexicans, the border to the south should be closed. And Jews? “Christ didn’t have one good thing to say about the Jews.”

Later, I contact Mark Potok, editor of The Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery (Ala.) nonprofit that tracks hate groups. He says Klan membership is static at about 5,000, but that 200,000 belong to other hate groups: Membership in those groups is increasing 25% a year.

PEPPER GAS. The following day–rally day–the police are nervous. Clarksburg looks as if it’s occupied by an invading army. Police vehicles include a bomb disposal truck. There are SWAT teams wearing black Wehrmacht-style helmets and face masks. “If things really get out of hand,” says policeman J.P. Walker says at a press briefing, “you’ll hear a siren, and then you’ve got 10 seconds until the pepper gas goes off.” The rally site has three fenced-in pens–one for Klan supporters, one for the press, and one for protesters. Participants must go through detectors, and attendees can’t bring in anything more than a car key.

Right on time, Norris, head up and confident-looking, dressed in white robe, leads the Klan parade out of the courthouse onto the front plaza, right past Stonewall. He is followed by eight Klansmen and two Klanswomen in brightly colored robes and hoods–no masks. About 150 protesters and 20 supporters shout insults at each other. “This country will go down the tubes,” shouts Norris, but he is barely heard above the noise because Tom won’t allow loudspeakers. When a rumor sweeps the crowd that one Klanswoman is a local English teacher (which turns out to be false), she yells good-naturedly: “There’ll be a test Monday morning.”

After two hours without incident and only one arrest–for disorderly conduct–the Klanspeople are escorted to a city parking lot, where they get into three cars, with Missouri, Ohio, and Virginia plates. Norris announces that a rally the next day in Fairmont, 20 miles north, has been canceled. Is that because the mayor refuses to provide security, I ask? “No, we just don’t want to make a nuisance of ourselves,” Norris says. The irony of that is not lost on one police officer. As he waves to the departing caravan, he mutters: “Goodbye, you sons of bitches–and to think I had seats on the 50-yard line at the West Virginia-Virginia Tech game today.”

By Peter Galuszka; Edited by Sandra Dallas

The Boston Globe Visits Richmond

Slavery? What slavery>

Slavery? What slavery?

 By Peter Galuszka

An outside view is always welcome, especially in these incredible days when a lot of Southern mythology is being turned on its head.

Richmond is a great locus for the examination given its tortured history. The former Capital of the Confederacy (more by accident than anything else) is a true crucible.

The Boston Globe is running a series of articles from cities across the country examining how Americans citizens view their identities and how they are reacting to the fast-moving examination of slavery, the Civil War and the debates over its twisted symbols, especially the Confederate flag.

Globe reporter Michael Karnish starts with Ana Edwards, an African-American Richmonder, as she stands near the Jefferson Davis Monument on the city’s famed Monument Avenue packed with Confederate generals, Arthur Ashe and an aviator.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who led the insurrection against the United States, is praised as backing “Constitutional Principles” and “Defender of States Rights” (strangely similar to the conservative reaction to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage).

Nowhere is it inscribed about what the war was all about – slavery.

You might go down to Shockoe Bottom for that. It was once the second busiest slave trading market in the country. There’s a site for an old gallows, a “Burial Ground for Negroes.” Lumpkin’s Jail. Ghosts of about 350,000 slaves “sent downriver from Richmond over a 35-year period before the Civil War.

One of them was Anthony Burns, 19, who escaped to Boston in 1853 but was arrested under a fugitive law and after lots of public demonstrations, was returned to Richmond with federal troops at the ready. He ended up in Lumpkin’s Jail.

There’s not a lot in Richmond to remind about slavery. In fact, when one drives north across the James River on Interstate 95, the Virginia Holocaust Museum makes a bigger impression even though Virginia had nothing to do with the Nazi Final Solution.

The Globe reporter does a fair job of contrasting Carytown, the chic and artsy shopping district (that goes hand to mouth with the city’s annoying fetish for fancy food and craft beer) with other parts of the city that are chock full of impoverished people. One out of every four Richmonders is officially poor.

Mayor Dwight Jones, an African-American, discusses his plans to eliminate public housing and fill it with mixed-use and mixed-income developments.

The next page to turn will be the UCL World Cycling Championship where 1,000 international cyclists will converge on Richmond for nine days in September. It is expected to draw 450,000 spectators (as the promoters insist they be called). Jones is a big promoter.

But plans are to have the cyclists zip past the 1907-era Confederate generals and Jefferson Davis on the city’s most famous avenue about 16 times before video cameras that will be broadcast globally. What kind of impression will that make? Given Richmond’s enormous and unresolved image problems and insecurity, can it simply and politely avoid facing the past as it has for 150 years and expect everyone else to go along with it?

I wouldn’t expect Mayor Jones to come up with an answer since he has failed to do much to put a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom, the most appropriate spot for it. Instead, he was pushing some kind of museum along with an expensive project including a minor league baseball stadium and bars and restaurants.

To be sure, I am not completely sure people or newspapers from Boston have a lock on any moral compass. I went to college there for four years in the early 1970s and heard so much self-righteous nonsense that I began to think of myself as a Southerner.

After all, in the fall of 1974, just after I graduated and went back to North Carolina, Boston erupted into racial violence over court-ordered busing to integrate its de facto segregated schools.

In this case, however, the Globe has a good perspective on Richmond. It is a valuable addition to the debate.