“Transparency” and “accountability” are words that we hear constantly in speeches made by politicians and citizen advocates alike. In fact we hear these words so often that they have lost much value and impact. If a politician is not espousing transparency and accountability these days, she or he seems vaguely dishonest.
So, the question is: while we are talking the talk, are we walking the walk? I define “walking the walk” to include not only transparency and accountability in government, but to also include responsiveness. The responsiveness of our elected officials is key to the actualization of transparency and accountability. Institutions and government processes can be transparent and seemingly accountable, but those characteristics have no import if our elected officials are not responsive to constituents.
The State Risk of Corruption Report Card is a good framework to use when searching for transparency, accountability and responsiveness in government. This report comes from the State Integrity Investigation (“Keeping Government Honest”) published by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and the Global Integrity Institute. Virginia received an ‘F’ overall in state integrity, which means that the risk of corruption is high. Virginia ranks 47th among 50 states on this index. Categories that are directly related to transparency, accountability and responsiveness are Public Access to Information and Political Financing; for all of which Virginia received an ‘F’. Key questions asked by researchers were: Do citizens have a legal right of access to information? Is that right to access effective?
The Report Card acknowledges that Virginia does give citizens some rights of access to information , however the effectivenessof this legal access is limited. Essentially, Virginia’s state government is sorely lacking in institutional recourse for citizens who are denied access. Furthermore, evaluation or monitoring is not mandated in law or regulation.. These two deficiencies render ‘freedom of information’ processes frustrating and often unproductive for Virginians seeking information that should be easily available to them. Obviously,the responsiveness of elected officials can make all the difference in the actual transparency and accountability of our state and local governments.
And mentioning our officials’ responsiveness brings me to the most powerful tool of accountability: Political Financing. Virginia receives an ‘F’ here as well. The “F” is deserved because in Virginia there are no limits to the dollar amount of individual contributions to to a candidate, no limits to contributions from corporations, no limits to contributions from PAC’s, and no limits to contributions from lobbyists. We do not regulate personal use of campaign funds, and do not require campaign fund audits. A candidate must report all contributions of more than $100 to the State Board of Elections which is legally charged with monitoring campaign finance reports. However, since there are no laws requiring audits of campaign funds, and no laws prohibiting personal use of campaign funds, the State Board of Elections is severely limited in its ability to monitor political financing.
In Virginia government and politics we rely heavily on the integrity of our politicians and because our laws are so lax, we must assume that our elected leaders will behave with honesty. But Virginians have no recourse to ensure accountability, transparency or honesty except the ballot box. As mighty a tool as the ballot box is, its strength is greatly diminished because of the weak or nonexistent laws governing political financing.
Happily, I do not know a single elected official or candidate who has acted in any way that could be called ‘corrupt’. We Virginians are fortunate that to date,scandal does not dominate our political news .But our laws do not protect us from corruption and scandal in what has become an increasing warlike, ideological and partisan political arena. It is time to institutionalize political integrity and ensure a future government free from corruption.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected].