Add One More Item to the Ethics-Reform Agenda

Quentin Kidd
Quentin Kidd

In a recent survey of registered voters, 64% of respondents agreed with the proposition, “Political leaders are less ethical than they used to be.” Distrust of political leaders crossed party lines, gender and race. “While public officials still may think they operate with a sense of noblesse oblige, the public clearly does not,” say Quentin Kidd and Meyrem Baer in the latest edition of The Virginia News Letter, “Virginia’s Ethics Rules for Public Officials: The Need for Reform.

Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, and Baer, an undergraduate researcher, provide a useful overview of state ethics laws and regulations in Virginia. The good news: Virginia is a standout in its requirements for disclosure, rating 4th best in the nation for campaign disclosure laws in a 2008 report. The bad news: The Old Dominion falls short in almost every other regard.

The paper provides context for many of the proposals that have surfaced following the Bob McDonnell GiftGate scandal, but raises one issue that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else. Virginia law places no real limits on how campaign funds can be spent. The law is clear that when a campaign committee is disbanded, money cannot be converted to personal use. But when it comes to spending the money during a campaign anything goes.

The unlimited way in which campaign money can be spent was illustrated by a recent case involving a delegate from Northern Virginia who reportedly spent nearly $30,000 on travel, food, and cellphone expenses in an 18-month period. A spokesperson for the State Board of Elections said recently that there were “no restrictions” on how campaign contributions could be spent, suggesting that college tuition could probably be justified. Additionally, there is no regularized auditing process of expense reports or disclosure statements by the commonwealth. … The law leaves it largely up to the candidates and campaign committees to assure the expenses are proper, with no real oversight beyond meeting the reporting and documentation deadlines.

The General Assembly will have a full plate when it comes to drafting ethics reform, and it may be impracticable to address every weakness in Virginia law. But the spending of campaign money should not be left off the list. If we don’t address it now, when will we?


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10 responses to “Add One More Item to the Ethics-Reform Agenda”

  1. I’m not that concerned as to how it is spent as long as it is disclosed within a business day online.

    People can decide if they don’t like it spent for some stuff and those spending it can use their judgement with respect to public sentiment.

    I actually think the fewer rules the better because more rules basically define loopholes.

    As with gift-gate – it’s not what you define that is legal.. it’s what you don’t specifically articulate – that in the presence of other “rules” leaves the door open …

    it’s sort of a big game anyhow because of the de-facto money-laundering ability of PACS.

    someone could give a million dollars to a campaign and you’d never know it because the Donor is listed as the GOP or Dem “Leadership Pac”.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Point well taken. Campaign contributions have become yet another way to “launder” money in politics. For example, let’s say there is a General Assembly member who has been in office a long time and never faces any real election competition. You would think that General Assembly member would get limited campaign contributions because they win every election in a landslide. In many cases you would be wrong. The politician solicits and receives vast amounts of money which that politician then donates to other politicians in much closer races.

    So, let’s say I own a company that “harvests” striped bass in the Chesapeake. I don’t want any limits on the number of fish I can take. However, if I donate directly to the politician who sponsors a bill eliminating striped bass fishing quotas that would be obvious. So, I find an old coot who get re-elected like clockwork and give him some money. I make it perfectly clear that more money may be coming if the sponsor of the fishing quota elimination regulation gets re-elected. Guess what? Suddenly there is a check from the old coot to the guy trying to eliminate fishing quotas.

    Virginia may have strong disclosure laws but sometimes those disclosures are just mirages.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Haven’t seen discussed anywhere else? Jim, you make these sweeping statements without even reading your fellow bloggers, This is from a piece I did Nov. 1 for The Washington Post:

    “More common is for lawmakers to charge their campaign and political action committees — funded in large part by special interests such as power company Dominion and cigarette-maker Altria — for day-to-day expenses such as groceries and gas. For instance, Tim Hugo of Fairfax, the third-ranking Republican in Virginia’s House of Delegates, expensed nearly $30,000 for travel and food and $9,400 for his cellphone over an 18-month period.”

    1. Sorry, but I don’t read the WaPo religiously. If you’d posted it on Bacon’s Rebellion, I would have read it. But I’m happy to give you full credit for having highlighted the issue before me!

  4. Amend the Constitution. No campaign contributions except from living human beings. No corporate, union, or nonprofit contributions. No bundling. Put reasonable limits on the amount of annual contributions to a single candidate and include self financing. No out-of-state contributions.

  5. right now – the whole thing is a cynical sham… and the campaign givers and recipients think us citizens are chumps…

    DJ outlined yet another way these guys basically operate with virtual impunity…

    the ones that get caught are either dumb or someone ratted on them.

    the idea that legislators are going to do anything that is truly substantiative is for Forest Gump types…

    Europe does not allow donations.

    we should do that.

    just stop it…

  6. Breckinridge Avatar

    DJ — the scenario you describe is a felony now. But it should be illegal for a contribution to A to be then sent to B, unless A is set up as a leadership PAC and every donor knows it is there to be shared.

    TMT — corporations are people. They are legal persons, and they are nothing more than a collective of individuals who have pooled capital. If you want to ban corporate dollars I want every other association banned, but you are dreaming.

    T0 Bacon’s main point — Kidd does point out a major problem, there are legislators using campaign dollars for trips, personal expenses, food, etc. They could pay their home mortgage because they have a campaign office in the basement (or even if they don’t.) Campaign dollars should be spent on political activity or constituent communications, and if any is left when the legislator retires, it should not be sent on to another political cause.

  7. I hear Breckinridge but with all of this – how do you enforce it?

    do you have a bunch of investigators going around looking into every elected personal finances to see the money coming in or a car he owns paid for with campaign money, etc?

    Do we just have a permanent staff of investigators riding herd of the finances of all elected?

    or is it more like rats behind a wall.. and even though you hear “noises” until you actually see a rat running across the room you don’t do much?

    you can pass all the nuances.. but as you point out with Corporations – they’ll find a way to get the money through the allowed legal channels .. as long as it is not illegal for corporations to give .. of which I agree with TMT – they are not people – they are using profits to pay for an expense – a cost of doing business – to protect their corporate interests – not individuals or even stockholders.. you’re talking about a few folks at the top protecting their shared assets …. and they end up having far more influence on legislation than ordinary citizens do. Essentially when corporations get in the money game – the only way to effectively counter them is for citizens to spend as much money as the corporations are and that’s why – in a nutshell that such money is banned in Europe.

    which is ironic given our breast-beating over American “principles”

    campaign money is DIRTY – from the get go.. what we are doing is arguing about how dirty we want to pretend it is… by coming up with all these various “you can’t do this but you can do that” regs.

  8. correction:

    you can’t do it THIS WAY but you can do essentially the same thing THAT WAY,

    that’s all these rules really are… they are a “How to” for the folks who are giving and receiving… this is sorta like a bucket with a gazillion holes in it and we plug one or two.

  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You don’t “religiously” read the Post? Gee whiz, the story covered half of the front of the Outlook section one Sunday. Kinda hard to miss.

    If you werein a similar space, I’d sure as hell read the story.

    Guess you are showing what a true blue conservative you are!

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