Who Watches the Watchdog?

Virginia watchdog

Virginia watchdog

by Stephen D. Haner

The Virginia Public Access Board of Directors is out with its five-point ethics reform proposal and it underwhelms. During my term on that board it became quite clear that the group would never advocate any change that created angst for the General Assembly members or the lobbyists who to seek to influence them. Perhaps I am wrong to expect otherwise.

VPAP confines its suggestions to “technical and practical” changes that will make VPAP’s job easier and its product more valuable. Make all filings electronic or use machine readable forms, align the deadlines better. The only substantive proposals are to require almost immediate reporting of undefined “particularly large campaign donations or gifts” and to make the definitions of what must be reported more specific. But more specific and more frequent doesn’t necessarily mean more transparent. It could easily become more specific, more frequent and less transparent.

VPAP says nothing about expanding the reporting requirements to immediate family members. It says nothing about closing the outrageous loophole whereby a lobbyist can charge a legislator’s travel or meals to multiple clients and claim with a straight face no one tripped the reporting requirement. VPAP says nothing about auditing the reports, allowing the Secretary of the Commonwealth to kick them back for changes, or increasing the penalty for a false, incomplete or misleading report.

And those are the easy ideas. Should Virginia ban all but nominal gifts or entertainment expenses? Should the campaign finance laws add restrictions on the use of campaign committee funds? I don’t like the idea of an ethics commission but it is worth discussing.

Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe ticked off five major legislative priorities while addressing the Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Williamsburg yesterday. Ethics reform was the final one mentioned, but not with the detail or passion he showed in discussing early childhood education and Medicaid expansion. And frankly, his pushing it may be counterproductive – the initiative should come from the legislators themselves.

My newspaper background always asserts itself at this time, much to the dismay of my fellow laborers in the lobbying vineyard. As a 30-year observer and participant in the legislative process, I’m very interested in the integrity of that process. Sunshine disinfects. VPAP had a chance to exert some leadership and passed. With the Virginia statehouse press corps on life support and everybody else invested in the status quo, absent a huge push from the public there may be little or no real change. There needs to be a silver lining in this cloud that has enveloped Virginia politics this year.

Stephen D. Haner is a lobbyist, doing business as Black Walnut Strategies.

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22 responses to “Who Watches the Watchdog?

  1. More disclosure is in the public interest. And ignoring immediate family members is a loophole waiting to explode.

    My wife is a career federal attorney. She has to report certain investments I hold as well as any she holds in certain categories. I’ve never found this to be intrusive. Why is the Commonwealth different?

    The Post will give McAuliffe a pass so long as he pushes for more spending and possibly even another tax increase. The Post endorsed Kathleen Murphy for the General Assembly even though she and her husband have been fined for failure to pay taxes because she supported higher taxes. Were Fred Hiatt and Lee Hockstader to die suddenly, Virginia would be a better place. Peter, before you get upset, keep in mind that a reporter told me he was pressured by the editorial board not to write anything critical about Tim Kaine.

  2. I think this is so odd. VPAP is totally dependent on what they are allowed access to.

    they have no authority or ability to dictate reform or additional disclosure.

    they walk a fine line of trying to take what data they can get and make the most of disclosing it …. but they cannot force anyone to disclose more.

    If we – citizens – want more/better then we have to make it an issue for folks we elect… not blame VPAP.

    I think this is totally bizarre.

  3. The first place they should look is the plan for a baseball park in the “bottom”. I would really like to know what went into that plan and who would reap the biggest benefits. I’m sure its not the baseball team or the residents of Richmond. “Follow the money”.

  4. I’m not sure people know where VPAP gets it’s information.

    they’re not investigators.

    they basically obtain legally-mandated disclosure information – some electronic and some on paper and get it online in a database that allows it
    to be retrieved in grouped scenarios.

    for instance, if you went to the source of the data – you may have to search through it to find how many donations went to the same person within a certain timeframe – as each on is a separate transaction.

    What VPAP does is get those separate transactions, put them in a database that allows people to retrieve the info based on certain associations.

    None of this data are the authorized to require people provide to them and their staff is not a staff of investigators.

    They are an amazing non-govt organization – much like Richmond Sunlight but they have no legal authority to do anything.. and no resources to investigate anything.

  5. Very interesting post.

    A few points from what I have learned about VPAP:
    (1) It is not an official agency. It is a non profit, non-partisan group.
    (2) It really isn’t a “watchdog.” It collects and distributes info it gets from clerks of the two houses and the commonwealth and other state sources. It does a good job (I think) of presenting the info in a user-friendly way.
    (3) David Poole, head of VPAP, told me that VPAP does not have the resources to vet the information it gets. In other words, if a politician or a lobbyist or a PAC lies, someone else has to catch him.
    (4) If Virginia is serious about ethics, it should set up an ethics commission with investigatory powers.
    (5) Virginia isn’t serious about ethics reform.

    Please see my piece in the Post’s Outlook section a few weeks ago:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/virginia-is-for-lovers-of-lax-ethics-and-anything-goes-politics/2013/11/01/757e86ce-40e6-11e3-a751-f032898f2dbc_story.html

  6. thanks for the article Peter.

    I’m just agog – that in the internet age – that people somehow end up blaming VPAP for something they have no control over and/or even misunderstand that VPAP is a private, non-govt organization…

    I think this shows just how easy it is to promote something that simply is not true and people believe it.

  7. Peter and LarryG:

    VPAP put out a proposed set of ethics rules. This is not simply reporting facts. This is endorsing policy.

    While I don’t have an issue with VPAP putting forth their own suggested policies I also see no problem with Mr. Haner’s critique of the proposed policies.

    The “hold VPA(P) blameless because they don’t do anything but report the facts” argument is wrong. They do more than report the facts. They suggest policy. And those policy suggestions are weak.

    Mr. Haner, a former board member of VPA, believes that the organization is too timid. As he writes, “During my term on that board it became quite clear that the group would never advocate any change that created angst for the General Assembly members or the lobbyists who to seek to influence them.”

    I am not surprised. Seven of the 13 VPA board members are from Richmond. My guess is that the board is dominated by people who think “the Virginia way” is just fine and dandy. Meanwhile, the public at large thinks that the VPA and VPAP is a government watchdog. This seems untrue. Maybe more of a lapdog than a watchdog.

    I see no reason to suspect that VPAP covers up any governmental wrongdoing. However, I do suspect that VPAP is yet another band of state government apologists when it comes to endorsing policy.

    Virginia needs an ethics commission with teeth.

  8. that’s totally bogus DJ.

    any organization, any person, any group can “suggest” policy.

    why would you use different standards of judgement for any group that has no affiliation with government?

    I just disagree.

    ” However, I do suspect that VPAP is yet another band of state government apologists when it comes to endorsing policy.”

    what? can you please explain how you’re treating VPAP as if they are a government agency?

    this is nutty.

    you have a purely private organization that is doing yeoman duty to institute more transparency in government and we are treating them as if the are some government agency not doing their duty.

    nutty.

    good grief!

    • There’s nothing bogus about it. VPA recommended a weak set of ethics rules. One of their former board members called them out on it. Look at their board of directors – ex General Assembly politicians, ex state employees, Richmond lobbyists, heads of Virginia trade groups. Steve Nash is about the only director who hasn’t spent time profiting from “the Virginia way”.

      If you are looking for independence that board doesn’t provide it.

      People should see VPA for what it is – a non-profit group run by a board of former state politicians, state employees and Richmond lobbyists funded by a lot of big companies with every reason in the world to see Virginia’s lax ethics rules remain lax.

      They missed Cuccinelli’s failure to report and McDonnell’s family connections completely. They also sat mute when Cuccinelli estimated the value of his family’s stays at Jonnie Williams mansion at $27 per night. How many “resources” do you need to “vet” that outrageous lie. They also semed to have no comment when Cuccinelli decided to “pay back” the $18,000 in ill gotten gifts he received from Jonnie Williams via a charitable contribution. Guess what? Charitable contributions are tax deductible. He didn’t really “pay back” $18,000, he “paid back” about $12,000.

      When you see a red animal with a bushy tail guarding the hen house it pays to look twice.

      • “People should see VPA for what it is – a non-profit group run by a board of former state politicians, state employees and Richmond lobbyists funded by a lot of big companies with every reason in the world to see Virginia’s lax ethics rules remain lax.”

        Good point, perhaps VPA is designed and built to give the appearance of doing something while doing nothing of consequence. A faux lightening rod to diverts nothing but the attention of citizens from the real culprits.

        Thus the VPA “Ethic’s Proposal” is akin to the George Mason’s faux study on how much Dulles Air Cargo Truck traffic would use the Bi-County Parkway. These sorts of red herrings fill the rivers of Virginia politics. It reminds me of carp season on the Potomac. In Virginia politics its hard fishing any stream or river to catch anything but buckets of red herring.

        For the details on that see: https://www.baconsrebellion.com/2013/10/air-cargo-justification-for-bi-county-parkway-crashes-and-burns-will-mcdonnell-pivot-to-new-justification.html#comments

  9. Steve Haner does have a point that VPAP has an appearance of collusion with big companies (he ought to know if he was a board member). I noted last summer that when I went to a VPAP annual meeting, it struck me just how much companies like Dominion and Alpha Natural Resources back VPAP financially. Nothing wrong with that, but they are rich, powerful regulated companies with very obvious and clear interests.
    I’ve been covering Dominion off and on since 1975. I know them well. They were a lot worse when they were Vepco.

    Alpha is a coal giant that bought the disastrous Massey Energy. They appear to be trying to correct the Massey mess but they have issues with unions, mountaintop removal and mine safety.

    The snapshot of such big companies paying money to support what some construe, incorrectly, to be a watchdog group brings an almost subconscious suggestion that ethics is being taken care of, Virginia’s just fine.

    Well, it sure isn’t.

    I’m not sure about their ethics code but I’ll be paying more attention. The problem is whether they should turn advocate. And for what.

  10. I think there is some semantic confusion here. “Watchdog” implies that an organization is actively policing peoples’ behavior. VPAP does not do that, nor does it purport to. It would be more accurate to describe VPAP as a “transparency” group. Its recommendations will likely be confined to increasing transparency rules and regulations.

    • This says it all:

      “During my term on that board it became quite clear that the group would never advocate any change that created angst for the General Assembly members or the lobbyists who to seek to influence them. Perhaps I am wrong to expect otherwise.”

      I am sure they will claim that they only made transparency recommendations because they are only concerned with transparency.

      So, how did it come to pass that 12 of the 13 board members have intimate ties to the very state government they purport to make transparent? Coincidence?

  11. well. they are NOT government… and they totally rely on donations to operate and it’s quite likely that they could not operate without the corporate donations as most people do not even know who VPAP is much less donate money to them.

    I do not think characterizing VPAP as a “transparency group” truly defines who they are in terms of their funding.

    I’ll admit that getting money to operate from someone like Dominion who is also donating money to candidates is a bit problematical.

    but let me also point out how many companies like Dominion – donate money to PACs who then distribute to candidates and how would you like VPAP to be funded in that manner rather than up-front disclosure of who funds them?

    I’m not sure what the answer here is but you can check with David Poole and ask him if they could operate on individual donations alone.

    and if you have that choice – would you rather have a VPAP funded by Dominion or no VPAP at all?

    NOw Richmond Sunlight runs on a shoestring and basically one guy Waldo Jaquith but Waldo is on his way to other things these days and I do wonder if Richmond Sunlight would survive without him.

    I think folks here are taking a lot for granted.

    Both Richmond Sunlight and VPAP could easily disappear… and Va would end up like a lot of states…

    I’m not opposed to the criticism – as long as it comes with a ” we should be doing this instead”….

  12. “Both Richmond Sunlight and VPAP could easily disappear… and Va would end up like a lot of states…”.

    Richmond Sunlight is run by Waldo Jacquith I believe. I don’t think he has a “board of directors”. Beyond that, I don’t think Waldo has ever made his living shuffling around Richmond with his hands in the pockets of Dominion Resources or some lobbying group. He is independent. He would be a great board member for VPAP. However, VPAP seems to prefer former state government politicians, state government lobbyists, state government employees. Well, you get the picture.

    “I’m not opposed to the criticism – as long as it comes with a ” we should be doing this instead”….”.

    1. The majority of VPAPs board should be people who have never profited from the state government in Richmond. After Waldo Jaquith I’d nominate Jim Bacon and Peter Galuszka to that board.

    2. Virginia needs an ethics commission with teeth.

  13. I’ll admit to a going with that opening line about watching the watchdog with full knowledge that VPAP really does not play the of role of “watchdog.” It is not an advocate and is not set up to be one (although in this case it did advocate changes in state law, even though they were more technical than substantive.) As a journalistic endeavor, it is more “reporter” than “editorial writer”.

    But again, who else is going to do this? While VPAP is a journalistic endeavor, the board has always been heavy with representatives of the very lobbying community being reported upon. It is as if a newspaper was being run by the police, government and business entities that make the news and are central in the stories every day. Hmmmm.

    The people inside the legislative and lobbying process know where the problems are better than anybody. Too many of the people inside the process think that what came out this summer was an aberration, not related to any underlying problem with our rules and procedures or the general operating environment. I think some real changes are called for and I stand by my premise that VPAP had a chance to take a stronger stand and passed.

  14. Waldo runs Sunshine on a shoestring – and the question is when Waldo moves on what happens to Sunshine?

    Waldo also created Va Decoded and it was funded in part by…. ” This platform on which this site is based, The State Decoded, was expanded to function beyond Virginia thanks to a generous grant by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.”

    but all 3 of these are vulnerable to just going away because they have no real sustained source of funding…

    I agree with the concerns about VPAP and believe there should be some level of separation between VPAP itself and a 3rd party foundation that receives donations and then passes them on to VPAP – and that would hopefully assuage fears that funders have direct access tohow VPAP operates. It’s an issue of optics .. and when several people here cite that as a concern, I have to respect that.

    but the folks that run VPAP – could easily walk to any job that values the ability of someone to take raw data and put it into a database with a very user-friendly front-end.

    the “staff” at VPAP are not high paid govt workers.. there is no money in providing a “transparency” website… as Peter has opined about “content”.

    Let’s make VPAP go away because their current relationships with the funders are too questionable…right?

    It won’t take many hammer blows to make it disappear….

  15. I’m reminded by what people so much want here instead of what they’ve got.

    http://youtu.be/7S94ohyErSw

  16. I think this thread, informed though it is, is missing a central point… VPAP never said that the statement it posted is the end-all-be-all. Read the ethics reform suggestion carefully:

    “VPAP believes it has a role to play in providing technical and practical expertise on how best to collect and disseminate required information. In that regard, as the General Assembly considers changes to ethics laws, the Board of Directors, blah, blah, blah”

    I read that to say that VPAP is inferring “You guys go out and figure gift limits and the definition of ‘immediate family’ and a $20 limit vs a $5 limit… but if you want to do it right, include these things.”

    As for criticizing the board, perhaps those closest to sty have the least regards for the pigs at the trough…

    FYI, black walnut has a lot of tannin, which is very bitter, but I am not sure about the consulting firm by that name.

  17. I actually went and looked at the list also and listed the “reforms” below but if you read through them – you realize two things:

    1. – that paper is still a valid reporting method and it apparently can be in a non-standard format in a non-timely manner.

    2. – what that means for VPAP in terms of getting it on an online database that people think is real-time, is not only manual work but they have to keep physically checking new paper coming in – as they’re trying to maintain a near-real time reporting function.

    in other words – big money can move late in an election and can be done in such a way that VPAP and the pubic don’t know until after the fact.

    that’s a big problem – way beyond the “leadership” issues, IMHO.

    I found the things they listed as “goals” – distressing that these things are not only required – and that VPAP has to stretch it’s already thin resources to try to get
    paper to online in a timely manner – especially late and near to the elections.

    FIVE CONSIDERATIONS IN ETHICS REFORM

    Make E-filing Universal — Anyone required to submit a campaign finance report, a lobbyist registration or disclosure report or a Statement of Economic Interest should file electronically.

    Make Government Records Machine Readable — Any legislative or executive agency that collects campaign finance, lobbyist or personal financial disclosures shall provide a free public feed in a “machine readable” format.

    Make Disclosure More Immediate — Adopt a standing, year-round requirement for expedited (24-72 hours within receipt) disclosure of particularly large campaign donation or gifts.

    Make Deadlines Uniform — Establish synchronized reporting deadlines for lobbyist and legislator gift disclosures in order to encourage better communication and coordination.

    Make Disclosure Information Consistent and Uniform — Disclosure requirements should be as specific as possible and disclosure forms should be designed in a way that those required to fill them out have clear guidance for what information is expected.

    and a final word to the critics:

    If you don’t like Dominion or other money funding VPAP –

    STEP UP! I’m sure you folks donate to worthy causes.

    If you want to complain then put some money on the table.

  18. VPAP is what it is. I don’t see the point in flogging the organization.

    All eyes should be on the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. That is the public-interest organization we all should be looking to for guidance on transparency and conflict-of-interest reform.

  19. Thank You!

    it’s totally bizarre to me that VPAP is being treated like a government agency that has failed it’s mission.

    our current “blame game” apparently extends even to non-govt organizations!

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