Virginia Ethics Enforcement So Weak It Can’t Be Rated

by Don Rippert

Your General Assembly in Action (or inaction).  The Coalition for Integrity (C4I) has rated the political ethics enforcement approaches of the 50 states.  Virginia’s ethics enforcement is so weak that it is one of seven states that cannot be rated.  This should not be surprising to anybody who regularly reads this blog. The other un-ratable states are Arizona, Idaho, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. The Coalition for Integrity acknowledges that Virginia has two ethics boards (Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council and the Virginia House Advisory Panel) but finds that both have “Limited or No Power”. As the Center for Integrity states in its general recommendations, “A toothless ethics agency serves no purpose. Agencies need wide powers to investigate and sanction all government personnel. Currently, seven agencies have limited or no investigative or sanctioning power.” Of course Virginia is one of the seven.

The Virginia Integrity Challenge. C4I has issued the Virginia integrity challenge in which it is asking candidates for the General Assembly to pledge to:

(1) support legislation to give enforcement authority to the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council and the Senate and House Ethics Advisory Panels and

(2) disclose on their campaign websites:

    • All contributions received (over $100) and expenditures made by their campaign committee.
    • Their financial disclosure form.
    • All gifts that they or immediate family members receive while running for office or serving in office, with the only exception being gifts from immediate family members.

While that seems like an absolute minimum request for ethical enforcement and disclosure it has been signed by only 19 candidates running for General Assembly seats this year. A quick look at the list indicates that six of the 19 are candidates from Northern Virginia while no candidate from the Richmond area signed the pledge. In 2017 C4I also ran a Virginia integrity challenge for the candidates for House of Delegates. Only 19 signed and no improvement in ethics enforcement happened over the intervening two years.

The roundup. Virginia is easily the most corrupt state in America. Money flows like water out of a fire hydrant into our politicians’ coffers. Virginia puts no limits on campaign contributions making it only one of four states to allow limitless contributions. There are almost no rules on how the politicians can spend the limitless campaign donations. Politicians have been found to use campaign contributions for private business club dues, dinners at Ruth’s Chris steakhouses around the country and other luxuries unrelated to campaigning.

As the Associated Press said in a report on Virginia campaign contribution spending, “Behavior that would get lawmakers locked up in other states or at the federal level is perfectly fine in the Old Dominion. Virginia is the only state where lawmakers can raise unlimited campaign donations from anyone, including corporations and unions, and spend the money on themselves.” There is also no effective transparency as campaign donations are made, bundled, re-bundled and so on until nobody can divine who is paying what to whom. Even if complaints are filed there is no means of enforcement. The end result is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Two things need to happen before this disgrace will end. First, we need to carefully consider the moral character of candidates for office. While it’s heartening to see 19 candidates (out of 140 seats) sign the pledge, the vast majority of candidates have not signed the pledge. While it’s heartening to see Sen. Chap PetersenD-Fairfax, introduce legislation to curtail political contributions from regulated utilities like Dominion,  that legislation did not pass. Politicians who take big donations from companies like Dominion, spend the money on themselves and then pass ridiculously favorable legislation for Dominion are immoral people. They are not misguided, forgetful or confused. They know exactly what they are doing. They are liars, cheats and thieves. They have no place in elected office.

The second thing that needs to happen is for this to be a campaign issue this Fall. Steve Haner is trying to wake up the somnambulant Virginia electoratePeter Galuszka has been trying for years. Ralph Northam is making a half-hearted effort. As mentioned previously, Sen Chap Petersen and the 19 “pledge signers” are trying. But it’s too little.  This rampant and legalized corruption has to end.