Let the Sun Shine In

sunlightby Stephen D. Haner

Whether real changes are made next year to Virginia’s disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws will depend largely on public and journalistic interest. The process responds to public pressure. The current situation exists because people haven’t pushed.

Understanding fully that one should be careful what one asks for, I’m going to describe some of the changes I think need to happen.

Ethics can no more be legislated than morality can. Disclosure laws and other rules don’t make people ethical. You can’t know what is in their hearts and minds. Crooks can follow the rules and ethical people can behave honorably yet break the rules.

Imagine a politician wanted to do a favor for his college friend such as get him appointed as a judge or pass legislation to benefit his business. Is he less ethical if the friend buys him dinner or lets him use a beach house? Does doing the favor without reward make him more ethical? Should he be barred from advocating for his friend above other candidates or other companies? Does it make a difference if the the friend is extremely qualified?

Ethics is a tar baby. Show me the rules. Rules can be crystal clear and enforced. As the process of government goes forward, with all its human failings, what we need to do now is clarify and expand the rules and then fully enforce them.

If that imaginary politician took a cash payment to support someone for judge, that is already a major felony with a potential jail sentence. That’s a rule. No bribes. If he is backing somebody out of friendship, the public and his fellow legislators should know there is a personal relationship involved. Again, that should be a rule of the game.

Disclosure, to me, has always been the key. Disclosure is important before voters make decisions on whether to elect or re-elect someone. Disclosure by legislators to their peers is equally important. So is disclosure by those advocating before the legislative and executive branches, whether paid lobbyists or not.

As a lobbyist, you might think I resist disclosure, but I support it. I want others to disclose, and to get that transparency I’m willing to reciprocate. I want everyone to disclose because I want to operate on a level playing field. Some lobbyists and interested parties spend substantial resources wining and dining legislators, taking them on trips, or currying favor in other ways. Other lobbyists and, of course, most citizens have no such opportunity, or they face company business conduct restrictions that prevent them from competing on that stage. When the field is uneven, it should at least be disclosed.

What do people have a right to know about me as a lobbyist? They have a right to know who I represent — who is paying for my services. They have a right to know which matters I am working on, in detail. They have a right to know if I’m supplementing my brilliant arguments with food, drink and gifts. Beyond truly nominal items, all food and gifts should be reported. People have a right to know if my client or I have or have had business dealings with legislators in private life. The dollar amounts are actually irrelevant – it is the relationships that could matter and should be disclosed. Read more.

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11 responses to “Let the Sun Shine In”

  1. Totally agree with Mr. Haner. but not optimistic.

    Rules for money in politics is like rules for brothels….

    Money is not allowed in Europe I understand.

    I think they have a better system.

    but then of course we have folks on SCOTUS who think money in politics is free speech. One-man, one -vote is an abomination that all politicians are just fine “wink winking”.

    Just look at how politics works in Va with the GOP front-runner. Bowling is out – not because he’s not a viable candidate – but because he failed to get connect to the financial fire hose of party influence money.

  2. I neglected to thank Mr. Haner for his quest post. Thank you sir!

    I really have no problems with Lobbyists … I think they benefit the process and often have a broader and deeper perspective on proposed legislation than legislators and even their staffs.

    I have a much bigger problem with money that is essentially “laundered” by giving it to Party PACs. There is little that VPAP can do to money that takes that path.

    The money involved in the process in that manner perpetuates the two party system as well as incumbancy. You can see this every election both general and primaries.

    So you have, for example, a company like Dominion Resources give POT of money to the GOP PAC and then the GOP PAC – uses it to maintain the party and incumbancy and voters ability to hold elected accountable is diminished. The incumbents are more accountable to the party than voters.

    They don’t allow this in Europe and in my view – their Democracy is actually more vibrant than ours where right now – the two parties are in a virtual war with each other and the voters be damned.

  3. Babysteps, babysteps, babysteps. Since we can’t expect the current members of the GA to police themselves and shut off their campaign fund spigots, we should focus on changing the culture and what better place than the spawning ground for future GA members, local government. These clowns generally get their credit hours in graft and corruption as members of the county or city boards and thus, that is the arena we should probably focus on in the hopes that there is some resultant positive shift in the ethical tendencies of future GA members.

    Want a starting point, I’ll give you one, amend 15.2-2287.1 by striking the words “in Loudoun County” and making the provisions of the statute applicable to all local government officers. The GA could then boast that they have addressed ethical concerns without suffering an immediate negative impact on their campaign coffers. This is a battle of inches, house to house fighting if you will, so why not have the GA do us a favor and lay down an artillery barrage on one of their biggest critics and one of our most immediate problems, local government officials. It would be a step in the right direction, and who knows, it might have some trickle up effect in the future, stranger things have happened.

  4. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Perhaps Virginia companies that support and are serious about clean and transparent government should use the services of Mr. Haner to get it.

    Perhaps Virginia companies should refuse to pay their shareholders’ funds to those lobbyists who refuse to take steps to protect good government. Why do not shareholders insist on this?

    Why should shareholders allow their money to be paid to those who are unwilling to take those steps that are necessary and reasonable to insure that their government cannot be brought by the lobbyists working on behalf of other competitor companies, much less their own company?

    How can those who serve in the Virginia General Assembly look their voters in the face and refuse to undertake reforms? Why would voters stand for it? If shareholders and voters are unwilling to insist on clean and transparent government, how can they expect anything but the reverse?

  5. Breckinridge Avatar

    Nice thought, Reed, but the companies that happily exploit the loopholes, and provide heavy entertainment, major travel opportunities and gives, tell themselves that it is for the good of their shareholders.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Yes, wouldn’t it be nice. And you are so right, of course. I am not holding my breath.

      But imagine such a world. Perhaps shareholders and public shame can help. Heck, big tobacco was a tough nut to crack. Is low grade but chronic corruption woven far deeper even than tobacco into the fabric of Virginia. You know I haven’t figured this Virginia corruption thing out. In many ways Virginia has been and likely still is one of the cleanest states government wise in the Union.

      I suspect Don and others will come after me with pitchforks on that suggestion. But I am not sure there isn’t a good deal of truth in it. Virginia corruption has its own genteel flavor and demeanor it seems.

      1. I actually had the same view of Va as Reed and I still think Va still escapes some of the hard core corruption seen in some states on pension funds and related though my view has been damaged.

        Big tobacco was dealt with like massive resistance was – there were some brave and courageous individuals inside and outside of govt and a whole lot of folks on the sidelines and victims…

        Va started out with a nobility governance culture and has never escaped it. It’s got serious levels of patrician in it including “genteel” corruption.

        DJ wants home rule and there is an irony to it in my view in that the govt that is best influenced by voters is local. That’s where they have the biggest clout and ability to truly toss out those they want out – and Va, via the Dillon Rule has, in addition, put serious restrictions on what local govt can do – which seems a bit odd – except that citizens have to wait 4 years to dump louts… and by that time much harm can be done and citizens have virtually no way to recall elected or initiate their own referenda. Va does require hearings and referenda on new local taxes.

      2. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        One of the more disturbing features of the controversy that concerns the North South Corridor issue is that there were several reliable reports of thuggish behavior by unelected Virginia state officials pushing the states’ proposal.

        These actions were said to be direct threats made in public by unelected state officials against elected local officials. The state was alleged to have threatened to take action against an entire community solely to punish that community because its elected official represented their interests.

        And it was said that the states threat was delivered for no other reason than to bully those local elected official into violating their obligation to protect their community against a ill founded state proposal. One that not only posed a threat to their community but one that was plainly and obviously being sold by the state’s own demonstratively false narrative.

        Such conduct is unusual in Virginia. Here, where the state action was reported to have raised its ugly head in public during the deliberations of a local elected body in that body’s own forum, one can only imagine what kind of thuggish behavior is going on behind the scenes in private.

        Such behavior if true is thoroughly corrupt. It plunges a knife into representative government. It replaces a commonwealth with an autocracy that forces its will on its citizens by its own lawless behavior. It can only happen and continue at the direction of its supreme leader. This should never be tolerated. Those who engage in it should be held accountable. This includes a sitting governor who not only allows it to happen on his watch, but allows it to happen without a public rebuke.

        If true, this state action inexcusable. It opens to door for future abuse.

        1. re: ” Such conduct is unusual in Virginia. Here, where the state action was reported to have raised its ugly head in public during the deliberations of a local elected body in that body’s own forum, one can only imagine what kind of thuggish behavior is going on behind the scenes in private.”

          Au Contraire Reed! VDOT has a long and abundant history of letting local officials know where they really stand on major road proposals.

          The thing to understand about VDOT – is that they are HUGE. They have thousands of employees that do everything from tend to traffic signals to reviewing development proposals curb cuts – to building new location roads.

          there are many “faces”.

          and to be fair – there is probably nothing more controversial than new road proposals so the folks that do that have a clear record of what, in their mind, caused “failures”.

          Once they are themselves convinced of a “need”, they proceed resolutely and they suffer no local elected fools…

        2. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          Regarding some of a many reported stories:
          For a few of the reported stories –



  6. re: ” Why should shareholders allow their money to be paid to those who are unwilling to take those steps that are necessary and reasonable to insure that their government cannot be brought by the lobbyists working on behalf of other competitor companies, much less their own company?”

    hmmmm….ummmmm….. ditto what Breckenridge said…

    If you could increase the price of the shares you own by “investing” in campaign donations… what’s the problem?

    this is why Europe says “no” to money in politics.

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