This week I am returning to the topic of ethics reform that I addressed in three columns last year [8/14, 9/11, 10/09]. This issue is truly the “canary in the coal mine” for the institutions upon which democratic governance depends. When office holders violate the trust of citizens, they confirm the belief that the game is rigged and politicians are the bad guys. Virginians have been prone to view this as mostly a problem for other jurisdictions, not for Virginia. The media coverage and the politics surrounding the McDonnell conviction underscore the fact that we no longer have this luxury.
Frank discussions of the ethics of elected officials carry the risk of offending the traditionally genteel political sensibilities of the Virginia General Assembly. But, I can think of no harsher assault on the political sensibilities of Virginia residents than the shameful pictures of a downcast Governor McDonnell and his wife leaving the Richmond courtroom.
While I did not expect the number of severe, yet just, convictions imposed; I was disappointed at the reaction of observers who professed “shock” at the outcome. One legislator was quoted in The Washington Post as stating “…the guy [Governor McDonnell] doesn’t have a dishonest bone in his body…I honestly don’t think he thought he was doing anything illegal.” The most disgraceful aspect of this sad affair is that Governor McDonnell may well have been innocent of wrongdoing under Virginia law! And even if he were “guilty” under Virginia’s financial disclosure requirements, it is unlikely that his violation would have been discovered, because there is no validation of disclosure report content. Even when clear report omissions are uncovered (e.g. the Governor’s Ferrari “rental” or Ken Cuccinelli’s vacation stay) there are no meaningful sanctions.
Many long-serving General Assembly members seem to believe that “we’re all honest here” and “drafting legislation that fairly covers all situations is too complex and would overwhelm part-time legislators”, as well as “we don’t want to spend taxpayer money on an ethics commission that would just waste time making mountains out of molehills”, and, finally, “if the voters don’t trust us because of the contributions and/or gifts we accept, and see conflicts of interest in the legislation we propose, they can vote us out of office.”
Virginia is exceptional among states for its weak and, in some areas, non-existent statutory constraints on the financial dealings of elected officials. The story we Virginians tell ourselves is “our politicians are just different,” by which we mean that (we hope): “Ours is a political culture of public service, not the kind of self-service—feeding at the trough—that (in our imaginations) characterizes politicians north of the Potomac River.”
The seemingly laissez-faire political marketplace in Richmond has eroded our ethical sensibilities as to what is, in fact, ethical. If a sitting legislator believes that Governor McDonnell is honest when, at a minimum, he concealed a loan which he personally requested, it speaks volumes about our legislators’ “understanding” of ethical requirements. Can one be honest and unethical at the same time?
This example is just the tip of the iceberg. Obvious questions: (1) Does it make sense that legislators can accept unlimited contributions, as long as they are disclosed? (2) Should undisclosed gifts to family members be permitted? (3) Should a legislator be allowed to propose legislation that directly benefits him/her financially without disclosing this fact? (4) Does it make sense to rely on self-disclosure rather than statutory limits without meaningful enforcement or sanctions?
The obvious answer is “No!” Developing effective legislation will be a challenge, but is not impossible. I intend to work diligently with like-minded colleagues—hopefully, across the aisle—to address these problems. I believe the most important ethics legislation to be passed is the creation of an independent Ethics Commission with staffing and enforcement authority. This Commission should cover all governmental units in the Commonwealth, including elected and appointed commissions (e.g. Tobacco Commission). Virginia is largest of only nine states without an Ethics Commission. The cost will be well worth the expense, even in these tough budgetary times, if we do it right. Virginia has set a high standard for effective governance in the past. We can and should set the standard for ethical governance, as well.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]