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.

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35 responses to “Virginia Ethics Enforcement So Weak It Can’t Be Rated

  1. Don. Great piece. Thanks

  2. I’m waiting for the “study” from a Conservative think tank that exposes this as Dem front group funded from dark money from liberal high rollers…….

    • Ha ha. I took a quick look at the boards for C4I and the people looked more likely to be righties than lefties. Reagan’s Comptroller of the Currency for example.

      You have to distinguish between American conservatives / Republicans and Virginia conservatives / Republicans. The American conservatives / Republicans generally want open government, transparency, etc. The Virginia strain are usually Richmond types who have been stealing from the Commonwealth for so long they don’t even recognize what they are doings as wrong. Hopeless.

  3. Larry, you are on to something. The Gop/libbers see their comeuppance coming. Years of rich $$ let them rule the state for years. Now virginia has gone blue in federal races and is about to go blue in the GA. What to do? I am so worried! Ha ha

    • Seems very likely to me that the state fully flips this Fall. Even with the blackface scandals and rape allegations the RPV is so hopeless I see no way that they hold either the House or Senate. They’ve already lost all three state-wide offices of course.

      Buckle up.

    • But Peter, Virginia is surely going to turn socialist with Dems in control… No No…………ahhhh eeee …

      For the record – reports of the death of the Va GOP are greatly exaggerated.”… they may well survive

  4. And you think that will change this problem? Please do not hold your breath. It was little different 33 years ago under total Democratic control, when I came to town. Peter was in Moscow or Timbuktu or somewhere, unaware of things in a hick town like Richmond.

    I used to get very excited about these issues, but the ethics advocates stopped taking me out to a nice restaurant and my ardor has waned…..

    But seriously, folks, it is a joke in Richmond. I will say one thing in defense of some of the campaigns. The email and snail mail inbox fills up with these questionnaires and requests for “pledges”, literally dozens if not scores of them, maybe hundreds, and if some group is new, unknown or obscure, it tends to get on the “look at later” pile. In many cases, the candidate has never seen or heard of this, just some low level schmuck who opens the daily pile. Or back in the day it would get handed to people like me who filled them out for multiple candidates and then tried to get them signed (I filled out scores of VA Free and VEA questionnaires….did I forge signatures??? Can’t recall.) Any sign from the outside of organization and thoughtfulness in campaigns between Labor Day and Election Day is an illusion.

  5. You are probably right. But the thing that jim bacon!and entourage do not want to admit is the dem $$ is very much a reaction to the total incompetence and corruption of Donald Trump who isn’t really a Republican. As i have said many times. Trump doesn’t exist on Bacons Rebellion.

  6. The Dem $$$ flood is based on the reasonable expectation that he’ll lose, just like the crowd of Republicans four years ago saw Hilary the Hapless as doomed. Even our most flawed candidate beat her. Blood in the water draws sharks.

    • The GOP is glued to Trump.. he’s their only chance! Other than that, they have no real agenda, it’s whatever Trump wants.

      The once proud fiscally-conservative, free-market GOP is reduced to being a gopher for Trump’s idiocy and GOP voters are reduced to voting for them cuz they will never vote for the Dems – no more than they woud Hillary!

      • Today’s GOP has nothing to do with Trump. The fatal flaw came from the backlash against Obama and the Tea Party movement. The vocal and uncompromising Tea Party crowd declared anybody who couldn’t pass their litany of conservative litmus tests to be RINOs. Moderate Republicans grew weary of the Tea Partiers and left the party – either overtly or by shutting down their political activity. The end result is a smaller party of largely zealots who can’t win much of anything without forced errors from the Democrats.

        Trump is a symptom not a cause.

  7. Steve. Thanks for thinking of me. Thirty three years ago i was in Chicago training for Moscow. I thought of Virginia often, then. Loved the place but could not stand the suffocating conservatism

    • If you say so, but it was all Dems. We had like 7 in Senate and 33 in House when I started.

      • But you know as well as I do that the Dems of those days were a lot different than the Dems of today. They were largely part of the Blue Dog Coalition. Corrupt? Oh yes, this is Virginia after all. But fiscally conservative and centrist on social issues. Today’s liberal Democratic Party started in the north with the incredibly corrupt Kennedy clan and worked its way across America. Once proud (and unbelievably corrupt) Democratic stalwarts like Harry Byrd defected. Byrd became an independent. Nixon saw the problem. Blue Dog Democrats in the south were increasingly isolated from the national party. They struggled to explain what their Democratic presidents were doing in the context of fiscal responsibility and centrist social values. The Republicans took up the mantle of conservatism and became very successful across the south. But they did so by perpetuating the behavior of the former Blue Dog Democrats – including the broad acceptance of legalized corruption. The Dems may have invented Virginia’s legalized corruption by the GOP institutionalized it over the past 50 years.

  8. What would you like better – for all of Virginia to be more like NoVa or for NoVa to be like RoVa?

    Can anyone imagine the GOP in charge of NoVa? Talk about killing the Golden Goose!

  9. Larrytheg. Good point

  10. I refuse to pile on. Maybe I am stuck in a 30-year time warp back when I worked directly with the members more; maybe I am naive; or maybe in a staff support position I did not see the questionable stuff.

    Whatever the reason, I think the label “easily the most corrupt state in the nation” is grossly exaggerated. I can think of at least three more likely contenders right off the top of my head—Louisiana, Illinois, and New York.

    The existence of a code of ethics does not automatically ensure ethical conduct.

    Don claims that GA members take campaign contributions and use them on themselves. What evidence is there to support this charge and how widespread is the practice?

    • People who work inside the remnants of the Byrd Machine never can see the machine. I mean no disrespect but I believe that to be true. The same can be said for career federal civil servants. They just can’t understand why Americans hold the federal government is such low regard. To them, the activities of the federal government all seem just normal, fine and dandy.

      By my definition legalized corruption is just as much corruption as illegal corruption. If you don’t believe that then you don’t believe Virginia is corrupt.

      Virginia’s corruption is ingrained, deep and intentionally opaque. This causes misperceptions. As the Associated Press wrote, “Behavior that would get lawmakers locked up in other states or at the federal level is perfectly fine in the Old Dominion.” So, if you see politicians being taken to task in other states but not Virginia you might accept one of the planks of the abomination called “The Virginia Way” and decide that there is little corruption in Virginia. Not so. The corruption is legal. If you look at arrests for marijuana possession you might think that Colorado is full of anti-weed citizens. Nope. Possession is legal there. They smoke like chimneys.

      As far as how widespread the corruption is … part of the corruption involved opacity that obscures even the legal corruption. The expenditure reporting for campaign contributions is a case in point. There is no requirement for reasonable detail and certainly no requirement that campaign contributions be spent on campaigns. Yet even with this lack of adequate transparency there are ways to see partly through the intentional haze. The Daily Press took a look and here’s what they found – https://www.dailypress.com/government/dp-nws-campaign-funds-self-pay-20161029-story.html

      My final thought is that McDonnell was some kind of aberration. He was not. First, he was never charged under Virginia law because there is no Virginia law with which to charge him. Second, he was part of a hatchet job by the Obama Administration that was overturned by the unanimous opinion of the US Supreme Court. Third, Kaine, Warner and probably every other governor was doing the same. Finally, if you think those days are bygone – they are not. Virginia law now restricts gifts to $100 in value unless given by family members or PERSONAL FRIENDS. So, who would decide if the giver was a personal friend? What if there is some question. Oh that’s right – there is no investigation or enforcement capability!! Another chapter in “The Virginia Way”.

      Virginia is America’s Most Corrupt State.

      • Don, what constitutes corrupt behavior in your view? How do you define it? Is there any aspect of Virginia politics and government that you do not view as corrupt?

        • I haven’t thought about a definition so I’ll put forward a hypothesis of a definition.

          Corruption in politics is any behavior which:

          1. Allows the influence of money to “tilt” legislative action against the interests of the citizens. For example, the Dominion $1B ripoff.

          2. Disenfranchises any citizens with a legitimate right to vote. For example, Virginia’s extensive gerrymandering … now ruled illegal in quite a few districts.

          3. Serves to preserve incumbents and / or reduce the competitiveness of elections. For example, unlimited campaign contributions, off-year elections, gerrymandering.

          4. Willfully prevents the citizenry from having access to public information. For example, Virginia’s campaign spending disclosure requirements.

          5. Stymies or stifles active monitoring, investigation and sanctions related to the unethical behavior of politicians’ actions. For example, the subject of this post and the points of the C4I rating.

          There are aspects of Virginia politics and law that are actually well constructed to prevent corruption. For example, the single purpose requirement where a bill can only be written to accomplish a single purpose. The random riders and addendums to bills at the federal level are shameful.

          • Dick Hall-Sizemore

            OK, I now understand your frame of reference. I use the term “corrupt” in the traditional sense to refer to something that is “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery”. You use it in a much broader sense–behavior that is antithetical to your sense of fair play.

            As for your examples, I would join you in opposition to most of them; they are not conducive to producing policy that is in the best public interest (as I define it). But none of them are illegal and some are fairly vague. For example, no.1. Unless we are going to prohibit lobbying (which would probably be unconstitutional), all lobbying (use of money) is intended to tilt legislative action one way or another. And who is to say what is against the interests of the citizens?

          • Dick:
            You can lobby to your heart’s content. You just can’t lobby with unlimited money. One is petitioning the government, the other is abject corruption.

  11. Dick. It ‘s not so obviously tacky and grotesque (excluding the mcdonnells) but it us there.

  12. The money that McDonell got was not from campaign contributions; the cash, loans, and gifts were given to him and his family on a personal basis. That is what made it so problematical.

    And as I think about it more, I do remember a long tradition in Virginia of such gifts provided, not in direct return for votes, but to curry favor. The lavish hunting trips, to Canada for moose, among others, provided by the Virginia Sheriffs Association were well known. Box seats to Redskins games were another favorite. Trips to Israel and other countries also occurred. These activities always made me uncomfortable. Although they were duly reported as required by law, the general public was unaware of them. I did not consider them “corrupt” because there was no explicit quid pro quo, just an establishing of familiarity and friendship that could lead to better access and a friendly ear in the future. In those days, it was conservative and business groups that engaged in this activity; liberals did not have any money. And after the McDonnell fiasco, Strict legal limits have been enacted on these kinds of activities, despite the grumbling of Tommy Norment and Dick Saslaw.

    Finally, I seriously doubt that Virginia legislators were alone in the nation in taking advantage of these goodies provided by lobbying groups or if they engaged in it to a greater degree than their counterparts in other states.

    Virginia is significantly different in that it does not have a limit on campaign contributions. And money does have the potential to corrupt. However, rather than buying votes, in many cases, groups or individual donors are just supporting candidates that they agree with. The business groups are the most cynical; they give to both sides when the divisions are close or to the party in power. They want to ensure access to whomever is in power, regardless of party.

    As for the “ dark money” that Jim is concerned about, I tend to agree with him. More transparency is needed. But the liberals are just playing by the rules set up by the Supreme Court and Mitch McConnell. And I notice some conservatives are now voicing the same concerns regarding being identified with certain groups as the NAACP did in the 1950s. Liberals need to be consistent: if it was wrong to harass members of the NAACP, it is wrong to harass people who support conservative organizations now.

  13. Dick, I agree that the hyperbole about VA being the worst has no evidence to back it up. But it’s bad, and the amount of money flowing now makes it worse. Donors are seldom benign, not the large one’s anyway. They expect value and tend to get it. Virginia has pathetic lobbyist reporting requirements, with the published rules laughed at, ignored and never enforced. As a state staff person, as opposed to political staff or lobbyist, there are conversations you normally would not hear, transactions you would not normally see. Often it’s subtle, not overt, but money corrupts, especially big money.

    A couple you missed, DJ:

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/2019-assembly-had-no-bark-bite-on-ethics/

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/im-shocked-shocked-to-see-corporate-checks-in-here-your-donations-sir/

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/the-strings-on-the-money-revealed/

    • It’s funny … middle and upper class Richmonders never can accept that Virginia is the most corrupt state. Middle and upper class NoVa people generally accept Virginia as the most corrupt state without a lot of hand wringing. There are exceptions of course … but the sense of Virginia’s political class being hopelessly corrupt is pretty well accepted around here.

  14. NoVa doesn’t have that sense of comfortable buy-in that Richmonders must have to go to sleep at night. I’ve lived in both. The assumption in NoVa is, if you’ve got a bad legislator you help vote him out, or at least threaten him credibly with it. The assumption in Richmond is, who do you know who can negotiate a compromise with him — maybe involving a quid pro quo. Remedy by ballot box rather versus fix by cocktail party.

    • Yes, I agree with that. There it’s a cultural issue, here too.

      But I’d suggest that the default position inside most all political systems is a constant strong trending towards corruption. Hence, the near universal truth that “power corrupts, and that absolute power does so absolutely. This iron rule applies to all peoples and cultures, in endless ways and degrees. We all live in a fluctuating state tilted toward corruption, where those in power and wealth seek ever more of both, at the expense and exploitation of everyone else, although different groups are often treated in often far different ways to achieve different advantages and control over them, for the advantage of the elites among them.

      This of course takes endless forms. The UVA president gets himself $10,000.000.00+ to renovate his house, for example. How are those funds being split up, among how many cooperating elites at the UVA feeding trough. The budget would interesting see. Why won’t we see it. Why not rotunda renovation cost breakdown, why is that hidden too. Corruption, that is why.

      • A different version of the same elite corruption is what ruined much of Fairfax County’s land use planning, and its implementation, including its highly dysfunctional transportation system.

        Here the elite built a system designed to enrich and serve themselves at the expense of everyone else in the county or passing through it. The same corruption of the elites is now ruining many parts of our system of Higher Education at student and taxpayer expense, like has also ruined many of our lower and secondary public school systems, to the point that every parent who can get their children out does, including most all the rich.

      • This is a constant feature of elite humans building systems for their own benefit to exploit their fellows citizens in the name of government and the public good. For example, as to 17th century Virginia:

        “When the zealous Edmond Randolph came to inspect Virginia’s collectors in 1692, he found them a venal lot, who regarded their offices simply a perquisites “intended to enrich the members of the council.” As Councillors they were able to block all efforts at reform, for they constituted the colony’s supreme court.

        In 1698, Benjamin Harrison (who was about to gain a seat on the council himself) observed how they stood by each other… (saying) “There is not perhaps in all the Kings Dominions any place where the methods of Managing both the trade and Revenues are so exactly calculated to default the Publick, and abuse the subject.”

        See chapter The Golden Fleecing, found in American Slavery-American Freedom, by Edmund S. Morgan, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University.

        Of course, the English King in Britain was also in on the take.

        • correction to Benjamin Harrison’s 1698 quote: …

          “There is not perhaps in all the Kings Dominions any place where the methods of Managing both the trade and Revenues are so exactly calculated to defraud the Publick, and abuse the subject.”

  15. More corruption from our universities, this time on how they teach and practice medicine, as explained in today’s Wall Street Journal:

    “Corrupting Medical Education

    Stanley Goldfarb knew what he was talking about. Last week the former associate dean of curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania medical school wrote in these pages that climate change, gun control and “other progressive causes only tangentially related to treating illness” were beginning to corrupt medical training. His piece spurred a social-media eruption that immediately proved his point.

    Left-wing medical Twitter —yes, there is such a thing—piled on with virtue signaling that distorted Dr. Goldfarb’s argument. He didn’t write that doctors shouldn’t have opinions about political issues. He wrote that those issues shouldn’t interfere with the scientific and clinical training essential to producing doctors who can serve patients.

    The most disappointing response came from Penn medical school, which sprinted for political cover. Dean J. Larry Jameson and Senior Vice Dean Suzanne Rose sent a letter to students and faculty that is a case study in progressive correctness:

    “Please know that the views expressed by Dr. Goldfarb in this column reflect his personal opinions and do not reflect the values of the Perelman School of Medicine,” the letter said. “We deeply value inclusion and diversity as fundamental to effective health care delivery, creativity, discovery, and life-long learning. We are committed to ensuring a rigorous and comprehensive medical education that includes examination of the many social and cultural issues that influence health, from violence within communities to changes in the environment around us.”

    Maybe we should begin to wonder about the quality of the doctors who graduate from Penn. Patients want an accurate diagnosis, not a lecture on social justice or climate change …” End Quote.

    For more see Corrupting Medical Education found at https://www.wsj.com/articles/corrupting-medical-education-11568578153

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