In my previous column, I outlined my plan to tackle gaps in Virginia’s statutory constraints on “influence peddling” by elected politicians and government employees required to file financial disclosures. I apologize if this blunt characterization offends, but there is no doubt that influence pedaling is what the public and the press is concerned about in the case of the acceptance by Governor Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli of large financial “gifts” from Star Scientific CEO Johnny Williams. Virginia law does not place limits on gifts under the theory they will be reported fully and accurately.
Flaws in Virginia’s current financial disclosure requirements must be corrected. Large gifts to the spouses or children of Virginia elected representatives and accountable government executives, especially by individuals and corporations doing business with the Commonwealth or its political subdivisions should be disclosed. It is ludicrous for the Governor to be able to argue that the law does not require him to disclose a $15,000 payment covering a wedding reception for his daughter.
It is equally ludicrous that Ken Cuccinelli and Maureen McDonnell should be able to hide ownership of substantial amounts of Star Scientific stock. In the case of Ken Cuccinelli, because he purchased stock valued at just under the $10,000 reporting threshold, even when it exceeded that threshold during the reporting year. Or in the case of Maureen McDonnell, because she sold her stock before the end of the year and then repurchased it in January. The law requires only disclosure of holdings as of January first of each year. It should cover holdings over the course of the year.
The most important change required in Virginia’s financial disclosure regulations is a political litmus test for the courage and integrity of the General Assembly. This change is to add meaningful sanctions for violations. There should be prosecutions, fines, jail terms, formal censure, etc.. Failure to comply with financial disclosure requirements must result in swift, certain and painful consequences if they are to have any real impact on the public’s faith and trust in government.
With the Supreme Court opening for its FY2014 term this past Monday, it seems that another critical linchpin for the public’s faith in government will be at issue: the constitutionality of dollar limits on financial contributions to campaigns. Once again, the heart of the matter is the argument that statutes limiting total contributions to a candidate or a campaign are, in effect, limits on free speech.
What does this mean for Virginia? On one level, not much. We already allow unlimited contributions from individuals or corporations, on the same theory that applies to gifts. But, how much of the Cuccinelli campaign do you think is funded by the Koch brothers? My guess is a lot, but they’re not telling and it’s possible that even Ken Cuccinelli does not know.
Today, money is speech! Corporations are persons! Somehow, a majority of the Supreme Court has discovered this nonsense in the “minds of the founders.” Their decisions have repeatedly trumped efforts by legislatures and elected executives to enact laws that mitigate the corrosive impact of private, monetary interests on the public good. While these decisions are troubling, my worst fear is that the Court may limit the ability of the states to force full and complete accounting and disclosure of contribution sources. We should be pro-active in the Commonwealth and push back the veils of secrecy used at the Federal level to conceal real identities of contributing people and companies.
Could the Court override Virginia because money is speech and corporations are persons? All one can say is “Maybe so!” Clearly, signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind only white men when asserting “all men are created equal.” Maybe what they really had in mind was rich white men. Maybe it really was the founders’ intent all along for the wealthy and corporate interests to guide the United States to “a more perfect union.”
The founders thought neither men of color nor women were full citizens and it took several constitutional amendments to rectify the founders’ error. Perhaps it is time for those who are not comfortable with the path that Corporate America and the “Top 1%” would have us follow to take up the arduous project of amending the constitution in these two crucial areas.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]