mcD.pixBy Peter Galuszka

Virginia finally seems on a path toward toughening its ethics rules after the Giftgate scandal involving Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. but — predictably — the deal reached by the two parties is toothless.

The arrangement proposed by a bipartisan group within the General Assembly would cap gifts to officials and their families at $250 and require biannual reporting of giving. But it would fall far short of creating an ethics commission with real power.

More than 40 states have ethics commissions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and most have subpoena power.

The Virginia proposal being pushed by House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) would do nothing of the sort. It would create a state ethics advisory commission (note the word “advisory”) made up of politicians and others.

In other words, it would not really investigate anything and would have no subpoena power. It would “educate” politicians about the rules, advise the General Assembly on ethics laws and help make sure that disclosure statements are filed online.

The deal would not do much with campaign financing, either, and lobbyist-supplied goodies such as free food and travel would be permissible.

In all, it would be a tiny step forward. It would require reporting of gifts to family members of officials and ban gifts to those family members worth more than $250. But the lack of a real ethics commission with independent power to probe and issue subpoenas means that Virginia would still have among the weakest ethics rules in the country.

As for increasing reporting of disclosure statements, the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project already does that, although it, too, has no teeth.

No one is required to check the reports filed by officials, although the information would at least be out there. It will be up to the news media and concerned citizens to do the legwork. And if they turn something up, where do they go?

When former Executive Chef Todd Schneider, later convicted of misdemeanors, had information about the McDonnells, he went to Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, who then sat on the information or months.

And regarding “educating” politicians about the rules, McDonnell certainly ought to have known them. He had been attorney general himself.

Sadly, this weak effort will do little to clean up the state’s political gift giving.

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4 responses to “A Toothless Ethics Proposal (No Surprise)”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    Let me skate on some thin ice here. The strength of the proposed ethics measures seems (at first blush) to be inversely proportion to the distance the legislator lives from Richmond. Put another way, NoVa legislators like Chap Petersen seem to be pushing for far more stringent measures than legislators from Central Virginia.

    This is only a hypothesis at this point. However, I suspect a ranking of proposed ethics reforms from strongest to weakest would see a lot of proposals from NoVa GA members near the top of the list.

    We’ll see how this progresses as the GA session proceeds.

  2. I’m not in favor of an ethics commission. Inevitably it will be a creation of the general assembly and subject to political influences including either overt or perceived witch hunts… and both sides will play in that mudhole.

    I think a simple law that says ALL transactions – defined the exact same way they are defined for government employees are covered – and they must be reported within one business day – period.

    beyond that – it’s a misdemeanor or felony that will be addressed by – a random Virginia Judge on a rotation basis.

    what the GA does is re-arrange the boundaries and then all the folks who want to continue to engage in that type of behavior just re-calibrate with respect to the boundaries just like McDonnell and his wife and advisers did cynically and purposely do.

    the process of laying out those boundaries is inherently cynical where the GA knows the public won’t really know the nuances of the new rules – for a while or until some other scandal reveals it.

    just hold the GA to the very same standards that Virginia government employees are held to … period.

  3. Breckinridge Avatar

    Let’s wait and read the bill. It might be better or worse, depending on the fine print. But there remains little chance that the General Assembly will give an outside body any real power to oversee its internal operations. The House and Senate have the authority to police and punish their own members, including expulsion, and the courts have the power to enforce the law. It would probably take a constitutional amendment to create the kind of oversight panel some seem to want, and once they had it, they might realize it will create more problems than it solves. I remain unconvinced on the question of an ethics commission.

  4. we’re just going to get the same basic model with a new skin on it.

    Having people who receive “stuff” from others..making up the rules on what “stuff” is okay and what “stuff” is not – is so rife with conflict of interest that
    only the gullible and super cynical would keep a straight face.

    from Politfact:

    As the scandal involving more than $150,000 in gifts and loans to Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family deepens, House Republican leaders are vowing to push for reforms to Virginia’s gift disclosure laws next year.

    Just how weak are Virginia’s disclosure and ethics laws? PolitiFact Virginia has spent the last two weeks collecting and reviewing data for all 50 states:

    • Virginia’s $10,000 threshold for statewide politicians and legislators to identify sources of income is the highest in the nation.

    • Virginia is among nine states that does not have an ethics commission to investigate malfeasance and disclosure complaints against office holders.

    • Virginia is one of 13 states that sets no financial limits on the gifts its governor may directly accept from lobbyists and others transacting government business. Virginia’s law only requires that the governor list on an annual disclosure form any gift worth more than $50, or series of gifts from an individual worth more than $100. Thirty-one states set cash limits on gifts and six states have gift bans.

    • Virginia is among 23 states that does not require statewide politicians and legislators to list creditors by name. State disclosure forms only contain boxes that must be checked if the office holders have loans of more than $10,000 from broad categories of lenders, such as banks, insurance companies, and finance companies.

    • Virginia is among 33 states that require no disclosure of gifts to the spouses of public officials from lobbyists and others transacting state business. It is one of 34 states that do not mandate disclosure of the same type of gifts to the dependent children of office holders.

    • Virginia is among 34 states that do require disclosure of specific information about loans taken by the spouses of officials. It is one of 36 states that do not mandate disclosure of loans to dependent children.

    so then I’d ask folks here.. do you know where to go look to see the transactions that are supposed to be reported?

    I admit.. I don’t know where to look…

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