My Moment of VPAP Clarity

star scientific By Peter Galuszka

Last week, the Virginia Public Access Project held its annual luncheon and invited gubernatorial candidates Kenneth Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe to speak. No debate. No questions. Just a few minutes of remarks.

The ballroom of the downtown Richmond Marriott was filled with the usual suspects, including lobbyists, lawyers, corporate officials and politicians. Some reporters were there, but they had been informed that their lunch was not included.

I attended and managed to sneak in a glass of iced tea when I came upon a moment of clarity. VPAP performs a useful service by detailing with sophisticated software and data bases who gives what to whom. I use the services of the non-partisan system all the time and over time, it has become the go-to source in Virginia. There are other services such as the Center for Responsive Politics, but this is the one that drills down in Old Dominion affairs.

Therein lies the problem. VPAP is part of an institution that backs inadvertently benefits from the lax and permissive Virginia-style rules of gift giving to politicians. Gov. Robert McDonnell and Cuccinelli are both caught for not readily disclosing the apparently legal gifts they got from the executive of a suspect company, Star Scientific that is under investigating by the FBI and a local prosecutor.

At the luncheon table sipping my purloined iced tea, I noticed the VPAP program. Its biggest contributors ($10,000 each) are Alpha Natural Resources and Dominion. The former is a Bristol-based coal firm that bought out Massey Energy whose officials are the target of a federal probe that they spent a decade conspiring against mine safety officials and the result was the death of 29 in a blast at Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., on April 5, 2010, the worst in 40 years.

Alpha says it is trying to correct the defects in the Massey organization in bought but it, too, is a huge player on the political front and has its own agenda, such as keeping alive a destructive type of mining called mountaintop removal. Dominion has a highly sophisticated advocacy operation since its survival depends on regulation. Other big-time VPAP contributors are car dealers, tobacco giant Altria, Comcast, lobbying law firm McGuireWoods, health groups, a few other utilities, and so on. Even NOVA real estate John “Til” Hazel is on the list, but much farther down.

I really didn’t see any citizen groups or anyone that wasn’t bound to benefit by giving legal gifts of jumbo shrimp, lakeside vacations or money to someone in a position of power in the state.

The problem, therefore, isn’t the fact that anything is illegal, but just about everything is and it is peculiar to Virginia. I was amused to read New York Times columnist Gail Collins write this morning about Virginia’s anything-goes gift policies:

“Under Virginia’s ethics laws the governor can accept anything – house, car private jet, former Soviet republic – as long as he puts it in the proper form.”

Ms. Collins details the familiar Giftgate issues, stating:

“Looks like an investigation for Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli. Except — whoops – it turned out that Cuccinelli had also taken gifts from the same business man, some of which he, too, had failed to report.”

She adds: “ Perhaps unreported freebies will be a big campaign issue. Although in a more perfect world, voters might focus on the attorney general’s two-year investigation of a University of Virginia scientist for the crime of believing in global warming.”

All good points from someone far enough from Virginia and its entrenched gift-giving structure that is designed precisely to enhance the influence of the rich and elite while pretending to let all Virginians now what is going on.

It is time for a basic rethink and restructure.

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15 responses to “My Moment of VPAP Clarity

  1. re: ” VPAP is part of an institution that backs the lax and permissive Virginia-style rules of gift giving to politicians.”

    that’s a pretty powerful statement that I’m sure VPAP would like to respond to.

    and in all fairness:
    “…
    Its biggest contributors ($10,000 each) are Alpha Natural Resources and Dominion.”

    Could VPAP exist without funding? more important – could VPAP exist with ONLY citizen and no corporate funding?

    I don’t think so and that says reams about Virginians who applaud what VPAP does but won’t give a dime….. it’s like getting Consumers Reports for free.

    So VPAP is forced to do what it must to survive even if it is odious.

    The other issue with VPAP – is folks ought to want to know how VPAP gets the data … go ask them…

    and it’s not VPAPs fault that Virginia’s disclosure laws suck…

    I think Peter owes VPAP an opportunity to respond and explain their view here.

    this is an unfair piece in my view.

  2. Peter, let’s imagine that Virginia had the tough gift-giving laws that you would like to see. Wouldn’t we still want a VPAP? Wouldn’t the organization still be needed?

  3. What would be interesting to people would be for VPAP to tell us what they have to do right now to get the information. You’d be surprised I think.

    Virginia could, if they wanted to, have a Virginia VPAP function that required all disclosures be electronic and not paper and put it on a single database that someone like an independent VPAP (and other orgs) could slice and dice it.

    I would urge that Jim invite VPAP to write an article here where they would explain the effort they have to go to – to provide people a reasonable view of the money – which if VPAP did not exist would be next to impossible for the average person to get to.

    One of the things you will notice is that some large donors give the money to the Party PACs which effectively launder it, i.e. hide where it ultimately goes to – because it gets mingled with other donations to the PAC and then they distribute to individuals – and you have no idea if the donor told the PAC to give it to a particular race or person.

    VPAP walks a tightrope.. they try to get as much disclosure as they can but not rile up legislators who might make their job even harder.

  4. I’ve enjoyed reading Mr. Galuszka’s articles published in Style Weekly, which VPAP has included in its news compilation, VaNews. As a newcomer to Virginia, Mr. Galuszka can be forgiven for not understanding a bit of state political history, including why the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project was started and its current role in Virginia politics. I would have gladly provided my perspective had he had given me the courtesy of a phone call before he published his blog entry.

    I founded VPAP in 1997 to address the gap between the theory and practice of Virginia’s disclosure-based campaign finance laws. Virginia is one of a handful of states with no limits on how much a candidate can receive from any one donor or interest group. The theory was that candidates would police themselves — or face the wrath of citizens concerned they were doing a better job of representing cash constituents than their voting constituents. In practice, however, citizens had no way of knowing who was giving to whom.

    As I stated in my remarks at Thursday’s luncheon, VPAP was founded on a simple premise: That if Virginia is going to have a disclosure-based system, the citizens should have easy, fast access to the information. VPAP has never held itself out as a crusader bent on overthrowing the state’s political culture. All we’re saying is if disclosure is what we have, let’s make it work.

    There are a lot of people who are passionate about VPAP’s mission, and not all of them are the corporate donors that Mr. Galuszka cherry-picked from the event program. I’m proud that VPAP enjoys broad-based financial support from all corners of the Commonwealth, from both ends of the political spectrum and from individuals and corporations. (You’d be hard pressed to find another organization whose major financial contributors have included the Piedmont Environmental Council and Dominion.) When it comes to disclosure, VPAP practices what it preaches. We list every single donor on our website at http://www.vpap.org/about_us/sponsors.

    These disparate donors support VPAP because they know they can rely on accurate, fact-based information. We provide this free to the public — and people are free to reach their own conclusions.

  5. Larry, Baconator,
    Gee, guess I hit a nerve. A few points:
    (1) I never trashed VPAP for being venal or incompetent. That’s your interpretation. However, I still maintain they ARE part of this live and let live system on non-transparency that is based on the ridiculous conceit that everyone is such an upstanding Virginia gentleman that they would never conceive (heavens no!) of doing anything improper. That would be in SUCH poor taste!
    (2) It is absurd to believe that you can transfer the self-policing, self-accounting system of governing that professionals such as accounting, law and medicine have to a very disparate group of companies and politician of any stripe.
    (3) Why is VPAP the only real place that really accounts for hit stuff other than the state agency that collects this stuff? Why are such huge firms with obvious self interests bankrolling VPAP? Where are individual voters and citizens groups? They have never counted for much in the Virginia Way of Doing Things.
    (4) Ok, VPAP does its job, collects gift giving and donation info and presents it in a useable way (which I admitted I use constantly, I don’t where Jim is getting off on his criticism). But who makes certain that the records are correct and that companies, individuals and politicians are not lying? Hey that’s not VPAP’s job. But whose is it? There is no State Ethics Commission. When was the last time anyone was indicted or charged with cheating? Or even convicted?
    (5) There are enormous questions out there about the highest law officer in the state, Ken Cuccinelli. According to accounts in the Times-Dispatch and the Wash Post, Todd Schneider, the embattled former governor’s chef approached Cuccinelli’s office in March 2012 with a tip that Gov. McDonnell was not reporting gifts from Star Scientific and Jonnie Williams. Apparently, Cuccinelli DID NOTHING about it until the following November when he asked the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney to investigate. Turns out that both McDonnel and Cucinelli had accepted gifts from Williams and Star Scientific and did not initially report them properly. Small wonder the FBI is involved. Why would a federal law enforcement agency be involved? Usually because federal laws may have been violated or the state law enforcement system is too compromised to be effective. That’s why the G-men got Capone, and not the Chicago cops.
    (6) Would we have known about all of this if it hadn’t been for The Washington Post? It is undergoing severe financial stress as are all newspapers (forget TV, they break nothing). With the print media weakened, who is going to make sure that this is all straight? Are we expected to believe that private corporations are so honest they can police themselves? A lot of the old Virginia crowd thinks so, including Bacon who is very quick to jump on government transgressions but tends to excuse private business.
    (7) We’ll never get an ethics commission, most likely. Why? Because the legislature is so well bankrolled by big companies. The big firms can point to VPAP and say, ‘Hey, we got this system and it WORKS GREAT!’

    That is my point about VPAP — they are part of the system whether they or Larry Gross or Jim Bacon likes it or not. ANy VPAP member is welcome to respond to my blog posting and I am sure that Jim would put them up. If he won’t, I will although Jim is the man in charge of the blog.

  6. Dear Mr. Poole,
    Thank you for your comments and VPAP history. One correction:

    I am not exactly a “newcomer” to Virginia. I got my first job as a journalist 40 years ago this June on The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.I was a college summer intern in 1973. I returned to the Pilot after I graduated from college in 1974 and worked there from 1975 to 1981. I then worked for two years as a reporter at the Times Dispatch before joining McGraw-Hill in Washington where I worked in various capacities and locations until 2000.
    I returned to Virginia in 2000 to edit Virginia Business for three and a half years and have remained here since. All told, I have worked in a journalist in Virginia for 20 years.
    I am afraid that does not make me a “newcomer.” My experience here traces back four decades.

    • Jesus Peter. are you going to address Mr. Poole’s response?

      😉

      Hey – the TRUTH here is that with VPAP – you’d have bupkis on knowing about the money in Va politics.

      Mr. Poole stepped into the breach and did so in a way – they he got support from people of all political persuasions.

      Is it good enough? emphatically no. Is it something VPAP can fix ? No!

      Mr. Poole was polite. He never intimated exactly what VPAP has to do to get the disclosure information from raw form to an easy-to-use online tool.

      I am a tightwad. I give only a couple hundred dollars a year to charity. VPAP gets a good amount of it and I urge Peter to write a check now or burn in purgatory!

  7. VPAP is a wonderful resource for transparency and voter information. I’m really disappointed it has not been copied in 30-40 other states. Poole deserves about 106 percent of the credit. Its role is to take dense and hard-to-follow disclosure reports and turn them into useful information for the general reader, and to do it very quickly. It is a great tool for everybody — reporters, lobbyists, campaign professionals, average citizens. It wasn’t that long ago that people were always at the State Board of Elections looking this stuff up, and now its at their fingertips with a great reputation for reliability.

    VPAP adds great value, but it does not create the data by itself. Virginia’s reporting laws are lax, riddled with loopholes and seldom enforced. VPAP cannot change that. VPAP can provide no more insight or information than it finds in the reports. It is not VPAP’s fault for example that there is no requirement to disclose gifts to immediate family members (which is stunning, because in the corporate world, there is very often such a requirement.)

    But your observation of who pays the bills is valid, Peter. Given the iron grip of the lobbying industry on its purse strings, VPAP will never be an advocate for change unless those companies want the change. I think the big donors to VPAP have both noble motives and less than noble motives, and their less than noble motive is to 1) keep disclosure and clarity at a certain level — but not take it too far and 2) make sure they are at the White Hat table if such an effort springs up outside of VPAP.

  8. Peter:

    Well written. Welcome to the Virginia Iconoclast Party. You are now the second member.

    The ruling oligopoly in Virginia is subtle. They don’t make contributions to VPAP and then corrupt that organization. They make sure VPAP is alive and well because they know what the alternative would be … common sense legislation that prohibits absurdly self-serving gifts and donations. They don’t keep off-year elections because they like odd numbers. They want off-year elections to stifle turnout and to help guarantee the status quo.

    VPAP was founded with the best of intentions and provides a valuable service, as your article points out. However, it has inadvertently become a crutch for the oligopoly and its apologists. “All gifts and donations are disclosed”, the apologists proudly exclaim. Unless, of course, if the gift is to the governor’s daughter for something almost always funded by the father. Or, unless the gift simply isn’t reported in a state with toothless reporting laws. Yet even those two examples are minor compared to the biggie … endless financial transfers. A big company donates to a politician in an ultra-safe district. Then, that politician bundles money and pays it out to other politicians often through innocent sounding “funds”.

    Here’s where Dick Saslaw has been spending the money he took in since 2008:

    http://www.vpap.org/candidates/profile/money_out_recipients/47?start_year=2008&end_year=2013&lookup_type=year&filing_period=all

    The point is that Virginia’s disclosure laws disclose virtually nothing of value despite the fine job done collecting and automating those disclosures by VPAP.

    Again, Peter, great article.

    • I should compliment Peter also even though I took umbrage at his premise.

      I’m not convinced of DJ’s point which seems to be that if there were no VPAP, the raw truth would shine so strong that Va would be forced to do more on their disclosures.

      I’m a skeptic on that supposition.

  9. Yes, it should be illegal — with sanctions — for one election committee to donate to another committee unless the donor committee is set up specifically as a leadership PAC. I think leadership PACS are fine but regular campaign committees should hold the funds for that one campaign. Donors should know who they are giving to. But that is a bill which will never pass.

    It should be illegal for a lobbyist at the end of his or her reporting period to report they worked on “matters of interest.” There should be serious sanctions if they do not list specific bills or specific appointments or regulatory matters they lobbied for their employer or client, and sanctions if they omit one. Then the reporter can ask, why did XYZ Inc. favor Joe Blow for the SCC, or why did it care about that air reg? That is a bill which will never pass.

    Another one which will never pass — a requirement for any registered lobbyist to disclose when they gave to a charity at the request of a covered official. Delegate X calls and asks for a donation to his or her favorite charity. Perfectly legit, probably, but very much a pressure situation for the person being asked. The amount of that going on would amaze you. Never disclosed.

    The gift disclosures should extend to immediate family members. This is a bill that I believe now will pass in some form.

    I have always favored disclosure over regulation, and have always opposed donation limits and outright prohibitions, but I’m getting there. The problem with donation limits and prohibitions is they don’t work, there is always a way to funnel the money anyway.

    • I’m not as good with leadership PACs because they, in fact, are used to launder donations that the donor specifies the recipient and the PAC administrators perform as directed but taxpayers have no clue. that’s bad.

      you know – this whole issue reminds me of the back and forth going on about whether regulation in general “works” – because you can find obvious failings – so some same because of those ‘failings’ it PROVES that regulation does not work.

      So let’s apply that to Va disclosure laws Since it’s fairly easy to drive an 18-wheeler through many and varied loopholes, should we just scrap the whole deal?

      I’m sure the anti-regulation folks would find that quite simpatico.

  10. “You want the truth? You can’t stand the truth”

    My VPAP would do this: Maybe this was Breckinridge’s point:

    a bill in front of the GA…. I query the database to see what lobby folks who have interest in the legislation have donated to which legislators.

    this would not be THAT hard as Mr. Poole does VPAP and Waldo does Richmond Sunshine (Waldo also does Va Decoded)

    At Waldo’s site, he even invites people and organizations to “follow” legislation but he does also list the “followers”.

    Waldo’s site puts the General Assembly site to shame… IMHO.

    I bet if we “nudge” Waldo, he might actually incorporate an API to the VPAP database for the bills… eh? (API = http://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia/term/37856/api )

    🙂

  11. I’m blathering on about Waldo without checking what Waldo is up to:

    A Virginia campaign finance API.
    http://waldo.jaquith.org/blog/2013/05/sbe-api/

    very different from VPAP!!!!

    Waldo is asking for ideas… this is YOUR CHANCE!

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