2019 Assembly Had No Bark, Bite On Ethics

VPAP graphic showing a uptick in “things of value” received and reported by Virginia legislators. You can find the full report here.  Much is not reported.

It is always important to listen for the dogs that don’t bark, and the 2019 General Assembly showed neither bark nor bite on issues of money, politics and ethics.  Everything in Virginia is just fine with the legislators themselves, apparently.

So fine that the only significant bill involving the Virginia Conflict of Interests and Ethics Advisory Council eliminated its quarterly meetings and left it to meet only on call. The only significant bill dealing with campaign finances to pass involves reporting requirements for elections in Virginia towns. We head into the decisive 2019 General Assembly races with the same rules that have served so well for so long. 

Reports in the Monday Richmond Times-Dispatch and on the Virginia Public Access Project focus on the most recent public reports of gifts, trips and meals accepted by those legislators. The headlines note a slight uptick in benefit values since the previous year, but as the VPAP chart shows, the amount is still one third of the amount five years before. Many legislators remain reluctant to show up on these reports.

But what does it mean if they don’t? The loophole described by Bacon’s Rebellion last year remains in place. It is still a common practice for lobbying firms to bundle dinner costs to multiple clients, allowing them to claim that each client spent less than $50 per guest and a dinner which in aggregate cost far more need not be reported with names.

So, while 45 of the 140 legislators report zero for the value of gifts accepted, they might have attended numerous high-dollar soirees, complete with the best from the bar, and accepted a pile of $49 gifts. Likewise, those reporting totals under $100 might have taken far more but simply don’t have to tell you.

The biggest item reported was a trip to South Korea taken by Delegate Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax County, and in most other cases it is travel, lodging and meals provided for various conferences that account for the 25 legislators reporting more than $1,000 in benefits. Acceptance of those trips, I’m sure, was blessed by that aforementioned advisory council, which has that job.

The downside of the public fascination and legislative angst over this is that social events can be a useful part of the process. If constituents are in town for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce reception or some other industry gathering, the legislator should go and mingle and listen. One popular event, the annual Agribusiness Dinner, with its reported $69 per person cost, was once again the only thing reported by many legislators. Shame on any voter or political opponent who thinks less of them for it.

But there is plenty to be worried about in the way Virginia operates.

  • The total cost of any and all social events hosting legislators and staff needs to be reported, ending the game of dividing the cost by the number of clients splitting the bill. Lobbyist A buys Legislator B anything more than a cup of coffee, it gets reported.
  • The $50 limit can cover a multitude of sins along with much harmless behavior and needs to be revisited.
  • We know which legislators are going to these state and national conferences, and they run the ideological spectrum, but do we know which lobbyists or lobbying principals are also attending? If the fees sponsors pay to the conference make it possible for the legislator to attend gratis, shouldn’t a lobbyist spending those sponsorship dollars also report those? Not just any direct entertainment costs? Trust me, the legislator eventually knows who paid the freight.
  • Charitable giving by entities which lobby the General Assembly, sometimes solicited by the legislators themselves.
  • The rare but real problem of campaign dollars being spent for personal benefit, a loophole which is likely to provide the next big scandal since the embarrassing gift revelations about former Governor Bob McDonnell and his family.
  • Dark money in its myriad forms, again from all political directions. Both parties enjoy the lack of disclosure and there is an understanding in play.
  • The really big one, Virginia’s loose definition of what constitutes lobbying, compared to the far more detailed rules imposed by Internal Revenue Service. It’s time for Virginia to sync with that.

A discussion over coffee, lunch or even dinner in and of itself corrupts nobody. But lobbyists or private citizens who can afford to do it, and get their invitations accepted, enjoy an advantage over lobbyists or private citizens who cannot afford it or find the practice distasteful. If it didn’t help, they wouldn’t do it. If it all had to be reported, they might do it less.

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13 responses to “2019 Assembly Had No Bark, Bite On Ethics

  1. Good article. It must be hard to consume all that graft given how short Virginia’s legislative session is relative to other states …

    http://www.ncsl.org/Portals/1/Documents/NCSL/2019_session_calendar.pdf

  2. On a 1 to 10 scale of legal graft, how does Virginia rank? Any sense of that? It is easier to get away with stuff here than in other states?

  3. DJ, if you can buy them in January you can buy them in June. It’s off season that the campaign dollars flow.

    JAB, I’m only really familiar with Virginia, but my understanding is we do have less transparency and less reporting than many other states, and on the campaign finance front we’re the Wild West compared to many. People who work multiple states have told me in the past that Virginia’s process is generally more honest than some, but it has been a while since I asked. One thing we have they don’t is a tracking operation with easy-to-use data like VPAP. But VPAP won’t be taking the lead to close those data loopholes.

  4. You know… VPAP is living proof of how Virginia’s finance and ethics laws work. VPAP is not a govt agency and when you get right down to it – one ought to ask why VPAP has to exist in the first place instead of a State-operated website that reports the money/gift transactions – on the day they occur. VPAP would still have a job slicing and dicing the data but why do we have a State where a non-govt organization has to gather the data in the first place?

  5. Larry, the data is gathered on forms issued by the State Bd of Elections, filed electronically. VPAP then slices, dices and correlates.

  6. nice try – that goes to the general page – now how about finding specific info on a candidate or donor?

    here’s where I end up:

    https://cf.elections.virginia.gov/Account/LogOn?ReturnUrl=%2f

    so now – there is no info available unless you “register”.

    so you then go “register”

    then how do you get info on a candidate or donor?

    This is what I mean. This is NOT a real and transparent way to find information on money and candidates.

    And this IS a STATE FUNCTION – and fails to provide simple access to the information.

    Everyone connected with this should be ashamed. This is not transparent accountability at all.

    This is laughable when one considers all the BR posts about the lack of govt transparency and accountability and not once as far as I can remember has BR focused on this bogus process for how the State reports money in politics and basically has to have a private organization funded by the many of the same folks who it reports financial disclosures about (like Dominion) to get the data and decipher it so people can understand it.

  7. https://www.elections.virginia.gov/candidatepac-info/reporting/index.html

    Try this. That was the page for candidates to register to file the report. Sorry. I did stay up for the game. Your mood indicates you just stayed up all night. The reports are also available for inspection at the office (or used to be, maybe not now that they are all online) and in the case of local offices, I think you can still find them at the local courthouse. Back in the day it was quite a social event to hang around the State Board office reading reports, with the staff from the other side right there with you.

  8. I’ve tried that link – show me what to click on – on that page to get candidate and donor disclosures?

    Oh I’m not up all night. I just think all this talk about ethics is a joke when it’s dang near impossible to actually use the state website to find that data and they rely on a non-govt service (VPAP) to do it and they are funded in part by the same donors and candidates that they are disclosing info for.

    that’s NOT “transparency” nor accountability and yet despite all the blather in BR about this for localities like Richmond – this – State Level process that is intended to complete the “ethics” by providing the data to average folks is dismal.

    You say it was a “social event” – yes – for the inside players – not the average voter. This is not “ethics” Steve. This is a mockery of it.

  9. I think I said that in the original post.

  10. Well you did say that in terms of what had to be disclosed – correct

    but beyond that – what good is “disclosure” if you can’t find it on the State website – at the time the transaction took place and have to wait until VPAP can get it and provide it.

    That’s bad on two counts – the ethics laws themselves but also just to get to the data that is actually supposed to be provided.

    You guys are all over Richmond and others for their lack of transparency.

    this is far, far more egregious… and it sets the tone for other govt agencies. If the State doesn’t do it then why should Richmond?

  11. Seems to me that’s the problem: the State is Richmond — the way you are using the term. Transparency!

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