As the McDonnell corruption trial moves towards its end, the predictable stories are decrying – once again – Virginia’s absurdly lax ethics laws and why they must be toughened.
There’s the usual observation that the five-week extravaganza of a trial that is drawing international attention will put the state on an entirely new axis when it comes to public integrity. Plenty of harrumphing.
The General Assembly, however, had its shot this winter and came through with only very mild changes putting dollar limits for tangible “gifts” while failing to take any kind of substantive measure, such as establishing a real investigatory ethics commission.
The best work I’ve seen has come from the Roanoke Times’ Dan Casey who pored over the new ethics law that went into effect July 1 and compared it with testimony that ended last week at the McDonnell trial (it goes to the jury tomorrow.)
A few of Casey’s pointers:
- The famous $6,500 Rolex. Would Jonnie Williams been stopped from giving it to Maureen and then Bob McDonnell? Not at all. The new law says that officials, spouses an immediate family may not accept anything tangible that is more than $250 in value. But, this applies only to lobbyists and business executives seeking state contracts. Williams wasn’t looking for a traditional state contract, specifically. He wanted gubernatorial help in prompting his product Anatabloc and gubernatorial muscle to pressure state universities into researching its key ingredient, anatabine.
- Bob probably wouldn’t have had to report the Rolex because it came from a “personal friend” who is not a lobbyist or person doing business with the state. At least McDonnell testified that he thought he was a friend. Not Jonnie whose plan was to schmooze up Maureen and Bob, get them to get state university research and then the schools would apply to the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission to give them more research money (plus the prestige of having the University of Virginia or Virginia Commonwealth University seal of approval on it.)
- McDonnell daughter Cailin didn’t want the $15,000 Jonnie gave for her wedding luncheon. In fact, she wanted a very different, much smaller wedding that she and her husband would mostly finance. Mommy and Daddy said no but were short funds and Jonnie helped out. Would the new law change anything? Not at all. The law puts the $250 limit on “tangibles” but “intangibles” like dinners, outings, five figure vacations, a wedding event or $5,000 Louis XIII cognac bottles don’t count although they are supposed to be reported.
- As for an ethics commission, we have a milquetoast “advisory” panel that has no investigative power. Once again, the “Virginia Way” prevails (see my Washington Post piece from last year. The state is all about self-policing because it is assumed that since Thomas Jefferson was honest, Virginia politicians must be, too. While Virginia has an excellent data base, the Virginia Public Assess Project, a non-profit, that can reveal what’s reported quickly and easily, it is too often seen as a substitute for a real ethics commission with subpoena power.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who signed the limp-wristed law, says he wants to review ethics and make regs tougher.
I doubt that will happen. I do not think we’re seeing a sea change in attitudes among legislators. Even if voters were going nuts, they’d still have to deal with a General Assembly that is dominated by hard-right Republicans who are selected in primaries and not general elections and are probably the most conservative ever thanks to gerrymandering and the anti-reg mantra they pray like a Rosary.
Can GiftGate happen again in Virginia? In the words of convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich: “You betcha!”