“You can’t trust my opponent, and here’s why” is the most universal, pervasive theme in politics, not “You can trust me, and here’s why.” If you are paying attention to the political ads in the Virginia Governor’s race, you know what I mean. Negative ads are like drugs of choice for candidates. They know these ads have a negative impact on public trust, but they believe they work. The cumulative effect of these ads is to feed public distrust by delivering the message: “politicians are generally untrustworthy, but I’m more worthy of trust than my opponent. “
There is a significant body of polling data indicating that public trust in the federal and state governments is on the decline. (There is much more variance at the local level). I believe this decline reflects two major factors: competence and ethical behavior. The public has a right to expect that the taxes and fees governments collect are used effectively and that the executive, legislative and judicial branch office holders and employees do not use the power of their positions for personal gain.
I am concerned that Virginia state government performance is on a long term downward course. I am also concerned that the recent disclosures of Governor McDonnell’s and Attorney General Cuccinelli’s questionable financial dealings involving Star Scientific CEO Johnny Williams may be an indicator of more serious and/or more pervasive ethics violations across state government. I will have more to say about Virginia government performance in upcoming columns. This column addresses the question of our responsibility to ensure Virginians that all Commonwealth government officeholders and employees comply with ethical standards worthy of our founders’ aspirations.
Quoting from the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL): “The Center for Ethics in Government was organized in 1999 to address this most critical, fundamental and far-reaching problem facing government in America: the loss of public trust and confidence in representative democracy. The Center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization… funded by NCSL’s Foundation for State Legislatures.” Their website provides extensive information covering ethics law and practice in all 50 state governments and addressing all elements, including: financial disclosure, gift regulation, conflict of interest, lobbyist regulation, and ethics oversight and performance.
A comparison of Commonwealth ethics requirements with those of other states reveals many differences and gaps. The most glaring of these, I believe, should be addressed in the upcoming legislative session. Virginia is one of only nine states that do not have a separate Ethics Commission with the responsibility to monitor compliance. Seven of the other eight states with no Commission are among the 13 smallest states by population. Only Arizona among these nine states approaches Virginia in size.
Virginia’s current philosophy on ethical standards is based on trust and disclosure. As the cases of the Governor and Attorney General demonstrate, this approach is no longer adequate to maintain public trust. Therefore, I intend to submit my own legislation – or join with like-minded colleagues in the General Assembly – to establish an Ethics Commission for the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Commission should have responsibility to review disclosure filings, to investigate complaints of ethics violations, to advise covered officeholders and staff on compliance questions, to prosecute and/or levy sanctions, to recommend standards to the General Assembly and to report to the public on overall compliance.
While I expect disclosure to be taken up by General Assembly, I fear there will not be an appetite for meaningful reform. In response to the objections I know will be raised, I would ask Delegates and Senators from both sides of the aisle to remember a principle set forth by President Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.” Only if we authorize individuals, who are independent and free to act, with the responsibility to enforce ethical standards, can we assure the public that their trust is deserved.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]