Virginia’s problem goes beyond McDonnell

August 22, 2013

The major focus of speculation in Richmond these days may be on whether or not Gov. Robert F. McDonnell will be indicted, but there are plenty of other, lesser situations involving public officials that show just how badly Virginia’s ethics rules need fixing.

State and local officials have a long history of cozy relationships with business people affected by policies they set.

The latest news concerns something that almost happened but didn’t. It turns out that Secretary of Health and Human Resources William A. Hazel Jr. and state Medicaid director Cindi B. Jones were packing their bags to vacation in France with a top lobbyist for managed care.

At the last minute, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association announced that senior vice president Christopher S. Bailey wouldn’t be jetting off to France with the state health officials after all.

Although the trip was to be enjoyed by “friends” and everyone was to pay his or her way, one has to assume that the association decided that with the McDonnell scandal so much in the news, the whole thing probably wasn’t such a good idea. An added factor is that it and state officials are in the midst of discussing how the state will handle Medicaid payments with the Affordable Care Act about to take effect.

The news comes after Henrico County’s school chief was put on paid leave after his close ties to a vendor were questioned. It turns out that Patrick J. Russo, the schools chief, traveled to Tuscany with former school board member Diana D. Winston and her husband, Joe Winston, whose company does business with the school system. Diana Winston resigned her post after questions were raised about her husband’s relationship with Russo and the school system.

In a case from 2011, about a dozen state legislators who would be considering lifting a ban on uranium mining in the state were flown by the company Virginia Uranium to visit an abandoned mine in France. The outing included a night out in Paris. The company is trying to have the ban lifted so it can develop a large uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County.

These trips are generally legal in Virginia as long as they officials report them, but they show just how permissive Virginia is and how that leads to relationships that are anything but in the interest of the public they serve.

McDonnell’s case is extreme and has brought for calls for a special section of the General Assembly to consider a host of reforms, such as the formation of a state ethics commission, a ban on gifts or setting a limit (there is none now) and forbidding unreported gift-giving to immediate family members of public officials.

Some, such as Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, who is running for governor, want the special session before the General Assembly meets in January. But that would play into the political hands of Cuccinelli, who was also caught getting gifts and not immediately reporting stock interest involving Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the head of the dietary supplement maker who is entangled in the McDonnell mess.

A prosecutor has said Cuccinelli has violated no laws, but he has still been sullied in the affair, as the latest poll seems to attest. It showed his Democratic rival, Terry McAuliffe, ahead of him 48 to 42.

The sad thing is that the fervor for real reform appears to be dying down. The editorial writers at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the voice of Main Street Republicanism in Virginia, seemed to be firm in their support for major changes. Then this morning they said the current law allowing unlimited hard money campaign donations should be kept with no limits on giving, just better reporting.

Bad idea.

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Dan Malouff · August 21, 2013