RICHMOND — Virginia ethics reforms intended to shine light on public officials’ practice of accepting lavish gifts — like the ones that landed former governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife in federal court — could have the opposite effect.
Under a new law, the public should be able to scrutinize a wide variety of officeholders’ financial data and gifts they receive with a quick check online. But unanswered questions about how the electronic clearinghouse will be set up could make it harder, not easier, to see the information.
At stake is the public’s right to know things such as whether their lawmakers are invested in companies seeking to ease industry regulations, or how much Dominion Virginia Power spent wooing lawmakers last year. For the record, it was $33,164.
The legislation was passed in the frenzied final days of the legislative session amid public pressure for reform after the McDonnells were accused of trading the prestige of the governor’s office for gifts and loans.
The goal was to gain online access in a single place to many thousands more documents than are currently available. But officials are struggling with the difficult and potentially very expensive reality of carrying out the law. As a result, they are considering a simpler, less searchable system that would make it more difficult to scrutinize the records.
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