By Peter Galuszka

An old adage in journalism has it that good stories just keep getting better.

And so it is with the saga of Jonnie Williams Sr. and the family of Robert F. McDonnell, the governor. First we learn, courtesy of The Washington Post, that the head of Star Scientific gave McDonnell’s daughter $15,000 worth of food for her Executive Mansion wedding in 2011 along with $100,000 worth of corporate jet rides for McDonnell and his staff.

Now we also learn that Williams paid for McDonnell to vacation at Smith Mountain Lake and loaned him a Land Cruiser and a $190,000 Ferrari.

There’s nothing illegal about any of this given Virginia’s toothless government accountability laws. Gifts have to be disclosed annually and the only problem seems to have been that McDonnell did not disclose the wedding meal because the gift was for his daughter even though he signed papers for the wedding celebration.

One reason why Virginia is so incredibly weak in regulating donations and gifts to public figures is another one of its conceits. There is an old saw that if one is elected to office he or she must be a gentleman or lady, after all they are Virginians. Presumably, this also means they are appropriately of English or Anglo Saxon ancestry.

There’s another reason as well, according to Gordon Witkin of the State Integrity Investigation Project that flunks Virginia for acountability.

In an interview I did with him for Style Weekly, he says that Virginia’s preference for loose regulation is based on its limited government, libertarian mind set that is more in keeping with attitudes in the Plains or Western states than the Northeast or Midwest. “It’s like in Wyoming where a state senator was asked why it was OK to make a right or left turn in a car without signaling. His response: “If you want to make a turn, it’s no one else’s damned business.”

That’s about the size of it among some of the most influence conservatives in the state, including gubernatorial hopeful Kenneth Cuccinelli, unless, of course the matter involves abortion in which case the state will add on all sorts of regulations.

Witkin’s group gave Virginia an “F” its recent survey. The Old Dominion was one of eight states to get the rating and was ranked 47th out of 50 stats. The ranking was based on awful scores in public access to information, executive and judicial accountability and budgetary, lobbying and ethics enforcement. “The systems and procedures in Virginia for accountability and procedure are weak,” says Witkin.

Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money and State Politics, based in Helena MT, says that “Virginia is one of four states that have no limits on contributions. It is one of seven states with no limits on corporate giving.”

Virginia also allows unlimited gifts as long as they are disclosed annually. Florida, by contrast, forbids any gifts at all, including a free cup of coffee.

Virginia is also one of nine states that have no ethics commissions. The State Corporation Commission, which oversees business and sets electricity rates, is  immune from the Freedom of Information Act.

Why so lax? One explanation is that years ago, the idea took somehow shape that Virginia’s politicians are gentlemen and ladies above the tackiness of graft. That would be in marked contrast to such sleazepots such as Illinois and New Jersey, which, curiously, received a “C” and a “B+” ranking for accountability the State Integrity survey. Witkin says that states such as these erect tighter rules after significant scandals.

This leads to a chicken or egg kind of problem. “I don’t think the level of public corruption in Virginia is high at all,” says political analyst Bob Holsworth, noting that the survey rated the toughness of laws not how crooked a state is. However, in light of the McDonnell wedding meal, ‘the gift issue is clearly a loophole that should be closed,” Holsworth adds. For starters, he says, gift disclosures should include immediate family members of the public official.

Sounds like a great place to start.

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11 responses to “Corruption? This is Virginia!”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    I respect Bob Holsworth a lot. He and I have traded e-mails and I was a regular reader of his now defunct Virginia Tomorrow blog. But I have to ask – how does Bob Holsworth know whether the level of public corruption in Virginia is high or not? Unless he’s clairvoyant I can’t understand how he can make such a statement.

    Maybe it’s a matter of definition.

    Was it corrupt to allow Jonnie Williams Sr to pay for McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding feast and not disclose it? I’d say yes. Star Scientific was the recipient of a failed VEDP business development grant in 2002. After the promised jobs failed to materialize the company had to return the VEDP money. So far, no problem. However, McDonnell should have heard that little voice telling him that taking the moral equivalent of an envelope stuffed with $15,000 was wrong. Cuccinelli is no better. His one stock holding is in Star Scientific – a company with which the state has a lawsuit over taxes. He “forgets” to disclose his holdings. Let me repeat that – he only owns the stock in one company – Star Scientific. And he “forgets” about the law applying to that single stock investment? Then, it comes out that he’s been getting party favors from Jonnie Williams too. So, a year after the lawsuit, he finally recuses himself from the case. Why now? Because he got caught now.

    Virginia Uranium offered to fly each and every Clown Show member to Paris. First class tickets and a four star hotel for something like four days. All to see a French uranium mine. Some of the clowns took the company up on the offer. Are you kidding me?

    Our General Assembly elects judges without a merit panel. Even the very attorneys who will practice in front of those judges vote to elect the judges. Dear Lord! I get to vote on the judges in front of whom I try my cases? Are you kidding me?

    The Commonwealth of Virginia is far, far more corrupt than the federal government.

    It’s time for a new state constitution. There are too many governance idiocies to just legislate them away.

    Even Jim Bacon, ultimate Richmond apologist, smelled a rat with Orion Air.

    C’Mon Bob Holsworth! Richmond is a cesspool of corruption.

  2. geeze…. I do not forgive it. I detest it. But this is not something new, not in Va, not in many other places.

    the sad truth is that you don’t change the Constitution or laws unless voters are willing to throw people out of office if they don’t and the reality is – we won’t.

    end of discussion

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      And voters won’t even know what’s happening as long as Richmond-apologist rags like the Richmond Times-Dispatch are the primary source of news in the Commonwealth.

      No surprise to me that the WaPo broke the story rather than the pathetic RTD.

      The times they are a changin’, LarryG. A complete Richmond outsider has a very good chance of being the next governor. And boy, that really upsets the Richmond insiders.

  3. Peter is right; the attitude of this being Virginia put us above the petty corruption of places like Chicago, New Jersey, or Maryland.
    In part this can be attributed to the noblesse oblige attitude of the bourbons who dominate Virginia politics from the end of reconstruction to the demise of the Byrd Organization. It is said that when Governor Harry Byrd, Sr. put a large number of constitutional officers in jail because of corruption; the only areas he was not able to clean up were Southwest Virginia and Princess Anne County.
    Changing the constitution is not going to fix the problem, it requires a cultural change, where our political leaders understand that perceptions of wrong doing are just as bad as actual wrong doing.
    As far as the legislature electing judges, I would much rather have that system that the “non-partisan” elections that occur in other states. The Judiciary needs to be insulated from the vagaries of politics.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      How is the judiciary insulated from the vagaries of politics when the politicians elect the judges?

      Other states either have citizen votes or they have an independent merit commission make recommendations or they force practicing attorneys in the legislature to abstain from voting on judges.

      Only one other state besides Virginia allows practicing attorneys in the legislature to elect the judges before whom they will try cases.

      There is a good reason that 48 other states ban this practice and the reason is that the practice is corrupt.

  4. Maybe, and actually likely if a candidate can appeal to NoVa, Hampton, Charlottesville and other urban/blue Virginia.

    but whoever they are – we need to recognize that the real power in Va lies in the General Assembly through which nothing goes without their stamp of approval and those folks are not yet majority urban/blue but still very much red state rural.

    A good start though would be to take back the Senate and then we’d be back to where we are at the National level where the House basically roadblocks anything it don’t like and the Senate just gets whatever they like.

    we’re in a world of hurt – governance-wise although I have to say – this is likely working the way the forefathers intended.

  5. Virginia is a weak Governor state. The state is functioning as intended.

    Also embedded in the operating framework of the state is the concept that some people are better situated to govern than others. In exchange for carrying these burdens, the better class is excused from complying with certain laws — they have equal protection plus.

    There is statewide corruption. Case in point, Gerry Connolly was a vice president of SAIC and chairman of the Board of Supervisors a fourth Tysons rail station was added to Dulles Rail — right in front of SAIC headquarters. The county attorney opined this was lawful – no conflict of interest — and left for private practice the very next day.

    Virginia is, indeed, as corrupt as New Jersey, Illinois or Louisiana, but more genteel.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Weak governor is just the tip of the iceberg. Weak judiciary, weak local government, least competitive legislative elections in the US, unlimited campaign contributions, unlimited gifts, undisclosed gifts, most difficult state in the US to get on the ballot, no ethics commission, no bipartisan redistricting commission, no term limits (other than a ridiculously stringent term limit for the governor), no citizen initiated referenda, no recall elections.

      Dear Lord, Virginia is a freak show of legal corruption.

  6. mbaldwin Avatar

    Our lax laws and p0licies on political donations and ethics affect not just our state government but set the standards for our local governments as well. Here in Loudoun County, now featuring a 9-0 Board of Supervisors, we just witnessed disdain for ethics 101 (the previous Board’s ethics policy being labeled simply “show” by our Chairman) with favorable votes on a project sought by a most generous donor to all Supervisors. Not a peep of protest from our local press. We get what we deserve, perhaps, thankful, as others here have observed, that we’re governed by gentlemen (and a few ladies).

  7. and yet.. I’ve not seen a single politician thrown out of office in Va for such shenanigans …. maybe one…. but in general… nada…

    we can blame these guys but in the end – we put them in office – and keep them there.

    at some point, we need to affix blame where it belongs and it a’int on the guys running amok.

  8. Cover Up Avatar

    If I remember this Governor was recently saying all the Mwaa Board Members were corrupt. He really went after the labor guy for buying an expensive plane ticket authorized by his employer because he said the public deserves better. Well Governor, if we all deserve better it would be good for you and the Commonwealth for you to step down. Practice what you preach. If you wanted them to resign then you should lead by example and resign today. Really $15,000 for your daughters wedding catering. High priced sports cars, vacations, etc. How can we trust you? The number of Washington Post editorials on this issue is reason enough. He needs to resign now.

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