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Posted at 01:23 PM ET, 04/29/2013

Are rich politicians less susceptible to freebies?


Richmond’s “giftgate” scandal raises troublesome questions about whether elected officials with middling net worths are more susceptible than richer ones to being manipulated by corporate executives with clear agendas.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli have failed to disclose “gifts” given by powerful individuals and corporations. Virginia’s accountability system is extremely lax, so there’s been no suggestion of criminal activity here. Ethics is another matter.

One of the more unpleasant questions is whether a man or woman making a decent but otherwise middling income and with limited assets is more likely to accept catered meals, trips, vacations and the like.

Cuccinelli disclosed income of $134,000 in 2009 and $264,296 in 2005. He makes $157,350 as the state’s top legal officer and got a $30,000 advance from Crown Publishing for a book. McDonnell isn’t known to have a particularly large net worth.

Neither suggests great wealth, and plenty of goodies, mostly on the petty side, have been flying around.

Both men have amended their annual gift disclosures after The Post began a series of articles about the gifts they have accepted, starting with McDonnell taking $15,000 for his daughter’s wedding meal from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., head of Henrico County firm Star Scientific. It has expanded from there. McDonnell has said the money wasn’t reported because it was a gift to his daughter, not to him.

Cuccinelli, for example, announced last week that he was amending his required disclosures of gifts to show that he took more goodies from Star Scientific, including a catered Thanksgiving dinner and the use of vacation house that rents for $3,000. Other previously undisclosed gifts include a $7,750 trip in 2010 to Southwest Virginia from coal giant Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol and $795 to speak at a coal industry rally in 2012.

Why so many honorariums? Does it have anything to do with how much money they have? Compare them to two Democrats. One is gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, no stranger to big money fundraising, who earned $8.2 million in 2011 from his various business interests. Mark Warner, the Virginia senator and former governor, was once said to be worth about $200 million, much of it from investments he made in the cell phone industry and high-tech financing a couple of decades ago. These are sizable assets and may make it easier for McAuliffe and Warner to decline favors and avoid trouble.

For Cuccinelli, there is a special irony in such net worth issues. The fiery Republican is perpetually boosting the free market system, degrading public service jobs and painting Democrats as stifling wealth creation through regulation and income redistribution.

As his Web site states: “The government does not create jobs, our people do. With the downturn in the economy and the growth of the federal government and taxes, the hope of entrepreneurship has been diminished.”

OK, fine. But aside from some time as a business attorney, most of Cuccinelli’s work has been as a government employee. There’s nothing wrong with that, but his competitor in the governor’s race — McAuliffe — has earned far more in the capitalist system that his party is supposedly out to destroy. One oddity with Cuccinelli and McDonnell is for two members of the Repulican Parrty, which supports the well-do-to, both are “actually very much middle-class guys,” Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth recently told me.

That might be a plus to rank-and-file voters, but in a strange way, it can put them at risk. Cuccinelli played the “average guy” card by disclosing his income tax returns to make McAuliffe look like a slick moneybags. It backfired when Cuccinelli later had to list gifts he had not disclosed before.

Another complication is that such gifts or the appearance of favoritism can directly affect Cuccinelli’s job as the state’s top legal officer. Didn’t Cuccinelli know that if he accepted gifts from Williams, it would impact his ability to handle state legal maters involving Williams and his firm? Star Scientific is the object of a state tax lawsuit. Cuccinelli has had to recuse himself from the case.

The coal business is more straightforward. Alpha took over Richmond-based Massey Energy in 2011 after the disaster at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 in West Virginia, making it the worst deep mine disaster in the United States in 40 years. Alpha has a better safety record than Massey, but it is taking its lumps, having lost $2.2 billion in one quarter last year. Coal in general has been in the tank, thanks to cheap natural gas and some new federal environmental rules, plus a slowdown in Asia’s demand for coal to make steel.

Naturally, the beleaguered coal industry wants to beat back what it considers onerous regulation. Cuccinelli is a perfect pitchman because he is anti-regulation (except for abortion, of course) and denies that human activity is responsible for climate change — a pet issue for King Coal. So, he was instrumental in the right wing’s counterattacks on the “war on coal” last election.

What bothers me is not that Cuccinelli would flack for the industry, but why did it cost $7,750 for him and his parents to visit Southwest Virginia?

Having covered the Virginia coalfields over the years, I know how much a journey there costs. From Richmond, it’s about $200 in gas. A couple of nights at a two-star hotel will run about $200. Outside of Abingdon, there’s not a lot of haute cuisine. A steak biscuit at Hardees will set you back $1.50. The trip shouldn’t cost $7,750, or even one-third of that.

Would Democrats McAuliffe or Warner have accepted such largesse? I don’t know. Tim Kaine, a former governor and now U.S. senator, once took a $18,000 Caribbean vacation from a patron.

In such cases, Cuccinelli, McDonnell and Kaine should have said “No, thanks.” Meanwhile, the General Assembly should start setting things right by passing laws limiting or prohibiting personal “gifts” for elected officials. Virginia needs to get over its arrogant conceit that its officials are too genteel to be affected by influence peddling.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By  |  01:23 PM ET, 04/29/2013

 
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