Image: Verdict Reached In Corruption Trial Of Former Virginia Governor McDonnell And His WifeBy Peter Galuszka

Despite the obvious need, Virginia still has done very little to address its monumental problems with ethics reform. The latest endeavor was announced yesterday by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but it seems too much like just another panel.

And panel it is. McAuliffe has created the 10-member Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government. The good news is that it is bipartisan and seems filled with reasonable people, including Christopher Howard, president of Hampden-Sydney College and Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Leading it will be for Lt .Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who has shown good sense in recent years and got screwed over by party hardliners who maneuvered to get former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli, a wild man, to run and lose in the 2013 governor’s race. His Democratic counterpart will be Rick Boucher, a former legislator from southwest Virginia.

The plan is to present a package of reforms that will deal with gift-giving and donations to politicians, and redistricting, or possibly redesigning some districts away from the madness that some, and mostly Republican legislators have created.

The impetus, naturally, is the first-ever conviction of a governor for corruption. Three weeks ago, a federal jury gave a resounding “guilty” on felony charges against Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen. The U.S. Justice Department stepped in because Virginia’s state ethics laws were so ridiculously lax no one could ever have made the case. There had been lots of “gee, I don’t see a smoking gun” jabber on this blog and elsewhere, but, hey, why not poll the jury?

Just as the McDonnells were being indicted last January, the 2014 General Assembly considered ethics reform but did squat. It made accepting more than $250 in gifts verboten and expanded disclosure requirements to immediate family but the Republican-led led legislature left in a pile of loopholes. “Intangible” gifts, such as African safaris or trips to the Masters golf tournament are A-OK.

What’s needed is a real ethics commission with subpoena power. McAuliffe’s action was quickly derided by such leading lights of ethics reform as House Speaker Bill Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment. These two Ayatollahs of the Status Quo claimed that McAuliffe was a “latecomer” to an issue that they obviously have done nothing to improve despite their many years in office.

GOP Party Boss Pat Mullins took an irrelevant swipe at McAuliffe’s perceived ethics problems long before he was even governor.

Redistricting is just as important as ethics and I’m glad it is being addressed. Many Virginia districts have been gerrymandered to keep a particular party in office in ways that  protect the status quo and prevent change. Of 100 House of Delegates races in 2013, “only 12 to 14 were competitive,” notes Leigh Middleditch Jr., a Charlottesville lawyer and a founder of the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, told me earlier this year.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington, has studied gerrymandering for years and believes it negates general elections in favor of party primaries where a handful of hard right radicals can dominate.

This is especially true in some rural districts where tiny cadres of activists, again mostly Republicans, dominate the picks for primaries. It doesn’t matter what the general public thinks or wants. A narrow minority worms its way in power and becomes beholden not necessarily to the party overall, but a little slice of it.

That is why so little gets done.

The very fact that leaders like Howell and Norment are in place and the primary system will make McAuliffe’s efforts very difficult. One wonders if you could go outside the diseased legislative system and forced change through the courts.

It worked before against such Virginia travesties as Massive Resistance. Something to consider.

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31 responses to “Good Luck With McAuliffe’s Ethics Panel”

  1. There can be no doubt that the most crooked crooks in this crooked state are its Republican office holders.

  2. If anyone of any party in Virginia is truly serious about this – a good start would be to commission JLARC to do a survey of other states that have highly regarded measures and list them side-by-side then put the best from each state together and put it in a statewide referenda.. and get this out of the hands of those who have had ample opportunity over the years to do something but have always managed to put their collective thumbs up their collective…. noses.. (thought I was going to say something else , eh?)

    over and over and over – in Va, the state of a man who once said ” Give me liberty, or give me death!” and with a motto that says: sic semper tyrannis
    “Thus always to tyrants” – adamantly refuses to give it’s citizens the right to initiate referenda – for if they did – we the people would fix the ethics problem as well as the gerrymander problem …

    we, as a people, as legislatively enslaved by our so-called “law-makers” and they have no intention of loosening the chains.

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Courts have generally held gerrymandering for political reasons is not unlawful or unconstitutional. What has changed is the federal voting rights laws that require creation and protection of minority electable districts. Once this is achieved, it is very easy to create majority conservative districts.

    Both parties engage in this practice. In 1991, the Democrat-controlled GA put Vince Callahan and Bob Andrews in the same district. It ended Andrews’ career. George Allen’s was gerrymandered out of his House seat. He ran for Governor.

    The GOP has done the very same thing. It put Leslie Byrne in the same senate district as another incumbent D. It effectively ended her career.

    More recently, McLean, Great Falls and Sterling residents have been put in an Arlington-dominated district that produced Senator Barbara Favola. I’ve never heard her champion a single issue that would benefit the Fairfax County part of her district. Janet Howell worked successfully to get sound walls on the DTR and Access Road and helped stop the widening of Georgetown Pike. I’m effectively sans a state senator.

    1. so here’s the question.

      If Virginia citizens had the right to initiate referenda – how would it be crafted with respect to preventing gerrymandering?

      Bonus question – would both GOP and DEM support it or perhaps more precisely – what kind of proposal would find support from both sides?

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Larry, as a practical matter, given the Voting Rights Act’s practical requirements to gerrymander some districts to ensure black and Hispanic “guaranteed electability,” I think it is essentially impossible not to gerrymander most of the rest of Virginia’s (or any other state’s) districts. This is especially true when both Parties make strong attempts to protect their incumbents.

        1. so you’re saying that voters themselves could not agree on how to do it – either?

          1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            What I am saying is that the Voting Rights Act trumps state law on redistricting as to minority districts. Virginia has a number of state court cases holding the redistricting must not unnecessarily split localities and communities of interest, as well as being as compact as possible.

            Years of redistricting under the VRA shows that, in order to achieve districts that can elect a racial or ethnic minority, communities must often be split and districts be non-compact in size. Since, in many case, protected minority groups residential patterns don’t mirror local boundaries, it is generally necessary to draw district lines that don’t match boundaries of localities or communities of interest. As I understand the law, that obligation binds both legislative redistricting and other types of redistricting.

            Thus, if it is required by federal law to carve a majority black district by ignoring local political boundaries, such as that held by Congressman Bobby Scott, for example, other districts in the same state are likely to ignore local political boundaries as well. Further, the remaining districts are likely to be heavy with either Democratic or Republican voters. Doesn’t that make sense? If Scott’s district is heavily black and, thus, heavily Democratic, rather than having fewer blacks and fewer Republicans, doesn’t it stand to reason that some other districts will be heavily Republican?

            I agree that an independent panel could also handle redistricting as per the Iowa Plan. But it too would need to carve out one or more minority districts. I suspect that the remaining districts would either be gerrymandered politically or split in such a way that one party would be favored over another, which, in turn, would likely cause that affected Party to try to kill the plan.

            Keep in mind that the racial make-up of Iowa is much more white than Virginia. There could not be a majority black or majority minority congressional district in Iowa as there is in Virginia. It’s a very different situation.

            Bottom line, IMO strict nonpartisan redistricting is not possible with the VRA in a state with significant numbers of protected minorities.

          2. given the constraints you cite – do you provide politicians drawing the remaining boundaries or citizens?

          3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            I have a recollection from the five years I lived in Iowa that the nonpartisan redistricting plan proposed put a larger than expected number of state senators from one party or the other in same districts as their co-party members. One expects someone will get burned in a nonpartisan redistricting. But this seemed to be over the line as if the nonpartisan effort was really partisan. The plan was rejected by the legislature, rightfully so in my view.

            I can accept Democrats screwing Republicans and Republicans screwing Democrats, but not only one Party being screwed in the name of nonpartisan redistricting. That’s about as ethical as the Washington Post’s editorial board.

          4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Larry, I’m somewhat agnostic to whether redistricting is done by elected officials or citizens. And, as I’ve written, both have one hand tied due to the VRA. To comply, there will be more odd shaped districts irrespective of who draws the lines.

            I like some things about citizens drawing lines. But I also fear sub rosa partisanship disguised as good government.

          5. all restrictions equal – citizens or politicians?

            you have to deal with what is TMT – not what you want.

            given what it is – do you think citizens would be better than politicians?

            simple answer … what is it? I choose citizens via referenda – let them make the decision. Politics will still be involved – but NOT party politics but voters.

          6. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Larry, I’m OK with citizens so long as each political party has a means to reject the result. The Iowa law requires the legislature to approve or reject a redistricting plan. Citizens get three shots before it goes back to the legislature to draft and approve a plan. Since the Ds control the Senate and the Rs control the House, both parties are protected.

            If there is to be partisanship, it must be open. The worst of all possible worlds is for partisan decisions to be made under the cover a “nonpartisan” process.

            It reminds me of a debate I was running a few years ago. I worked fairly hard at getting a moderator who was acceptable to both sides. Interestingly, Senator Mark Warner wanted to be the moderator. I quickly rejected that as I would have rejected Governor George Allen.

          7. so… you DON’T want citizens to have the final say… but instead politicians, correct?

            boy is it hard getting a clear answer from you sometimes!

            😉 this was a simple yes or no answer you know…

          8. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Larry, absent a radical state constitutional amendment, I think the elected officials – the GA – has to be involved. Ditto for a BoS or a city council. Only elected officials can enact laws – and redistricting is a law. I don’t like the idea that people I didn’t get to vote for can make a law that binds me. We at least have some control over elected officials.

            I suppose redistricting could be done by referendum. But that seems to be a very complicated decision to put before voters. Do we want to turn redistricting into political campaign, full of outside money? And who draws the lines.

            I’d be OK with a citizen group that recommends plans that go into effect unless overruled by the elected officials. I could live with something like the Iowa plan, at least, I think I could.

          9. TMT – what do you think people are doing when they vote in a referenda in most states?

            they are, in fact, enacting laws and/or making changes to their Constitution.

            but you’ve answered my question – you want the politicians to do it and I prefer for Virginians to have the right to initiate referenda as citizens in many other states have.

            I especially think citizens should have the right of referenda when elected officials are not representing the views of a majority of voters and I think the elected abuse that power when they know that citizens cannot override them – as is what happens in Va – for instance – with ethics or gerrymandering.

            so you apparently prefer to have the elected gerrymander rather than citizens require as much one-man, one vote as is permitted by the voting right act.

          10. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Larry, I don’t have a problem with referenda on existing legislation. I don’t like recall unless it’s confined to situations where the elected official has committed malfeasance. I’m also somewhat opposed to the initiative as it can allow outsiders to craft laws. This is why I want more openness in Virginia and the federal governments.

            I think we are getting a bit confused on referendum and initiative. Referendum allows the voters to review and either affirm or repeal legislation. I can support that. As noted above, initiative allows voters and special interest groups to propose new legislation. I’m not convinced that’s better than what we have today.

            I see no evidence that citizens left to their own devices would propose redistricting that is any less partisan than today. Citizens don’t have the time and money to do the redistricting math. Special interests do. I am open to use of the Iowa Plan in Virginia as it keeps final responsibility in the hands of elected officials, rather than in the hands of people over whom I have no vote.

          11. so you choose politicians to do it , right?

            just say yes…

          12. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Larry, I would prefer elected officials to have the final say over redistricting. Any other approach, absent a major constitutional amendment, would be unlawful and unconstitutional, IMO. I am open to the Iowa Plan where a nonpartisan group prepares redistricting proposals and submit them to the legislature, which may vote up or down. This happens up to three times before the matter is left to the legislature. Am I clear enough now?

          13. you were from the get go – you want politicians to decide not anyone else.

            and politicians gerrymander and refuse ethics reform.

            but you still support the current process…

            you essentially believe as bad as the politics are – that it’s better than if citizens voted.

            by the way – it’s not “illegal” nor “un-constitutional” if the law does allow citizens to vote on referenda …

            citizens-initiated referenda – the wording would have to be vetted legally the same way that legislature-initiated referenda are worded.

            even at the local level – when BOS put referenda on the ballot – the words have to be legally vetted.

            the process for citizen-initiated would be exactly the same.

            the question you’re avoiding is -should citizens be able initiate legally-vetted referenda?

            be clear. do you or do you not support the right of citizens to initiate properly vetted referenda?

          14. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Larry, you are still mixing up referenda and initiative. Referenda are votes on either laws or proposed changes to a constitution. The former is: “We don’t like what you did, so let’s us vote whether to nullify the statute.” The latter is: “Here is a proposed amendment to the constitution or a proposed bond issue. Vote yes or no.” I can support this.

            Initiative is a proposal submitted by a number of voters for the rest of the electorate to vote on a proposed piece of legislation or a constitutional amendment.

            I think an initiative can be less transparent than the legislative process and more subject to special interest manipulation. Short of raising millions of dollars to advocate against the proposal, there is nothing anyone can do to turn around a “bad” proposal. To the contrary, citizens can put pressure on legislators to change, pass or kill legislation. For example, when Tim Kaine proposed freezing the LCI, massive numbers of Fairfax County residents and businesses put pressure on state legislators and Bob McDonnell to reverse Kaine. In today’s environment, with moneyed interest groups and surrounding media, I think a direct initiative is more dangerous to democracy and representative government than the status quo.

          15. initiative is the ability to initiate a referenda…

            what is “initiated” by citizens has to be legally vetted the same that referenda that are initiated by elected are.

            by it sounds like you do trust the politicians more than you would the voters even though voters also vote on legislature-initiated referenda….

            do you not like the idea of citizens voting in referenda at all and prefer to have the elected decide all issues and not have referenda?

          16. TMT –

            What is the difference between initiative and referendum?

            Types of referendum and initiative include:

            Referendum – The legislature refers a piece of legislation to the people to either approve or reject it by vote.

            Compulsory referendum – Typically new constitutions must be submitted to the people for approval before they are considered ratified. Some states also require that bond measures be approved by referendum.

            Voluntary referendum – The legislature may, at their option, refer a piece of legislation to the people.

            Popular referendum – The people may challenge a law recently passed by the legislature. If enough signatures are gathered, the law will be put to a vote by the people who may vote to nullify the law.

            Initiative – Citizens draft a proposed law

            Indirect initiative – Citizens draft a proposed law and present it to the legislature. The legislature may adopt it outright. Otherwise, the proposal goes on the ballot, sometimes with a counterproposal designed by the legislature.

            Direct initiative – Citizens draft a proposed law and it goes on the ballot.


            the reason I support – initiative is in cases where the legislator will not act or their actions are partisan.

            I see initiative as a counter-balance – a way to tell legislators to do the job and do it right or the public will get involved.

            I support having any citizen initiative to be strictly vetted so that what goes on the ballot is totally legal

            I also support a high bar – a high number of signatures so such initiative cannot be brought by small numbers of activist groups.

            in terms of people be influenced – that’s not just a problem with initiative and politicians themselves engage in lies and distortions on issues to be voted.

            you seem to have no faith that people – can determine the truth on an issue – which I have some agreement with – but I do not see it as any different between the current elective system and direct voting on referenda.

            politicians themselves decide to put questions to voters rather than vote them themselves.

            what do you think the rationale is for legislators when they decide to put the question to voters rather than just vote it themselves?

            do you think when politicians do that – that people are subject to being fooled by special interests also?

            I see Democracy and referenda as deeply flawed with potential for unintended consequences but I think having Virginia run by elected alone without any way for citizens to challenge them is worse. We end up with really bad ethics issues that we know from the beginning are going to be swiss-cheese rules.

            how can we get better ethics laws if the legislature is in charge of it?

          17. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Good find on the discussion of initiative and referendum.

            ” people are subject to being fooled by special interests also” In today’s world, “yes.” I believe in the wisdom of checks and balances. There are checks and balances in today’s system. McAuliffe can veto a bill. The GA can override him, but they need both houses to do so. The referendum is a check on the legislature and the governor. The issue, however, is very focused. – Should we repeal statute X or approve bond issue Y? I don’t see a similar check on the initiative except someone else willing to spend the same amount or more on the other side. Do we really want the Koch Brothers, George Soros or labor unions writing our legislation and conducting massive PR campaigns? My answer is no.

          18. TMT – what do you do if the legislature refuses to deliver a real ethics law to the Gov to sign – and it never comes up out committee so you can hold your own representative accountable for his/her vote?

            or they deliver yet another truly watered-down atrocity?

            how citizens hold legislators feet to the fire on issues the legislators will bury in committee and/or allow special interests to lobby to bury in committee?

          19. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            I don’t see a failure to pass legislation as a problem in most instances. If there is no legislative consensus, bills don’t pass. It usually takes several years to assemble consensus on complicated subjects. I think we need a strong ethics law for elected officials from the county to the Commonwealth. But I’m not sure what all should be in the bill. And I have no more trust in outsiders to get it right than I do in legislators.

            For example, I would not support a bill that prohibited specific actions by corporations or businesses that were not also prohibited to unions and nonprofits. I don’t think its fair to prohibit Jeff Bezos from endorsing candidates on behalf of Amazon, but letting him do the same on behalf of the WaPo.

            I see a big difference between an employee of a company or member of a labor union writing letters or giving campaign contributions and campaigns coordinated by companies, nonprofits or labor unions.

            So depending on what is specifically in a bill, I might strongly support it, be neutral or adamantly oppose the bill. Keeping it bottled in committee might get me POed or make me smile.

          20. TMT – I’ll remind you of these comments the next time I hear you speak with frustration about the legislative process!


          21. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Larry, I’m the first to admit I’d like all my priorities enacted into law and the things I don’t like defeated. But as a commenter on the political process, I can see wisdom in the Founders’ plan for government. It’s full of checks and balances. And a need for some level of consensus before laws are enacted, changed or repealed. And the devil is always in the details.

            But even then we screw up. The enactment of Prohibition, for example.

          22. TMT – are you opposed to the CONCEPT of a referenda?

            is that a Constitutional process? Why would Virginia allow a referenda on abortion or guns but not ethics or re-districting?

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    McAuliffe’s chief of staff’s voice mail message to then-Senator Puckett.

    “Hey Senator. This is Paul Reagan again. I just wanted to bounce one idea off you. I know there was a lot of frustration with your daughter, not, you know, getting a judgeship or something. if there’s something that we can do for her, I mean, you know, we have a couple of big agencies here that we still need agency heads. We could potentially, potentially, subject to approval of the governor and so forth, you know, the department of mines, minerals and energy could be available. So we would be very eager to accommodate her, if, if that would be helpful in keeping you in the senate. We, we would basically do anything. We just need you really, we need you for the rest of your term and beyond, but in the immediate future, we need you to help us get this Medicaid deal through and I think we’ve got a way to do it. So anyway, please let’s keep all this confidential. Call me 703-850—–. Thank you sir. Bye.”

    1. yep – saw this… and this is what you’ll continue to get as long as legislators decide ethics.

  5. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Maybe we should put a motto on our license plates “The Sophisticatedly Corrupt State.”

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