Until someone mentioned the word ethics, the town-hall meeting at the Reston public library was relaxed, with two seasoned Virginia state delegates joking in a way that made problems such as clogged roads and underfunded schools seem easily fixable.
Then came questions about receiving gifts from lobbyists, and Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax) was suddenly standing in front of a voter to defend the $500 worth of Washington Redskins tickets he regularly receives from the Dominion energy company.
“Everybody else has done the same thing,” Rust said, provoking laughter as he hastened to add that, in his bid for reelection, he nonetheless supports reining in political gifts in Virginia. Nearby, state Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) — who last year was treated by Dominion to two dinners costing more than $100 — nodded in agreement about the need for reform.
“I’m offended by what’s happening in Richmond today,” Plum said earlier.
In a state that has long considered itself a place of clean government, the shadow of a federal investigation into gifts received by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his family is hanging over dozens of House of Delegate races that are normally about traffic, schools and other daily concerns.
As the campaignsfor the Nov. 5 elections rev up, both major parties are seeking to leverage the ethics issue for political gain, or at least keep it from darkening their chances for victory.
Federal authorities are investigating the gifts received by McDonnell and his family from a prominent Richmond area businessman. Among them: payment of a $15,000 catering bill for the wedding of one of the governor’s daughters, a $15,000 shopping trip in New York for first lady Maureen McDonnell, and a Rolex watch and access to a Ferrari for the governor.
“The Republicans know that it’s possible for Democrats to pick up some seats, and what they’re trying to do is prevent a wave that would take out 10 or 12 of them,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime analyst of Virginia politics and a managing principal of the Decide Smart consulting group. Democrats, he said, aim to fuel a voter revolt in hopes of weakening Republican control of the House of Delegates, where the party holds 67 of the 100 seats.
“Whether it impacts voters, or if voters are so fatalistic about politicians that they see political ethics as an oxymoron, is another question,” Holsworth said.
In Northern Virginia, home to most of this year’s closely contested races, some candidates have made ethics reform a central plank in their campaigns.
Del. K. Robert Krupicka Jr. (D-Alexandria) has launched an online petition — vaethicsreform
nowcom — to urge state lawmakers to plug the “many holes” in Virginia’s laws exposed by the McDonnell investigation.
About 200 people have filled out the petition form since the site was launched Sept. 3, Krupicka said.
Although that number may seem small, candidates on all sides say they encounter a tide of voter distrust on the campaign trail.
“We’ve got to deal with this issue right away. We cannot deal with job security, education or anything else if there is this distrust in government,” said Del. David I. Ramadan (R-Loudoun).
Questions about ethics have played a particularly prominent role in Ramadan’s hotly contested bid for reelection in the 87th District, a Republican-leaning area that stretches through parts of Loudoun and Prince William counties from Interstate 66 in the south past Route 7 in the north.
Ramadan was among the legislators calling for a special session to deal with ethics reform.
But his Democratic opponent, John Bell, a budget consultant with the Booz Allen Hamilton contracting firm, has repeatedly pointed out that Ramadan attended the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter and was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in June.
Ramadan, a jeweler and international trade consultant, has declined to discuss any gifts he gave to McDonnell’s family or his grand jury testimony.
Bell also criticized Ramadan after it was reported that Ramadan failed to disclose a $7,000 trip to Taiwan paid for by the Taiwanese government. Ramadan later officially reported the trip and explained that it was part of an economic-development mission to attract jobs to Northern Virginia.
Bell has also criticized Ramadan’s international business connections, saying that Ramadan failed to disclose his connection to companies based in the British Virgin Islands that list him as a director and that his name recently was mentioned in an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists investigation into possible tax shelters.
“I think there’s a clear pattern of unethical behavior in hiding the truth from voters. Right now, more than ever, people want transparency,” Bell said.
Ramadan said the Virgin Islands firms are international franchise companies set up by his consulting group, not tax shelters. He was not required under Virginia law to disclose his ties to those companies because he is an unpaid director and earns no income from them, Ramadan said.
He called Bell’s allegations “cheap shots” that are “all about trying to come up with some kind of campaign ‘gotcha moment.’ ”
Both major parties agree that ethics legislation will be one of the top priorities for the General Assembly when it reconvenes in January.
Currently, Virginia law places no limit on the value of reportable gifts elected officials can receive and does not require them to disclose gifts to family members. The state’s ethics restrictions are considered to be among the most lax in the country.
In a joint statement, state Republican leaders said they support new reporting requirements on gifts to family members, simplification of the reporting process and compliance training for elected officials.
Other Republicans said they’d argue for having business trips and dinners treated differently than such luxury gifts as football tickets and paid vacations.
Democrats, meanwhile, are calling for the creation of an independent ethics commission, something McDonnell advocated after a 2009 bribery scandal that led to a 91/2-year federal prison sentence for former delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, a Republican from Newport News.
State Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax), who is drafting an ethics bill, said his party also wants to limit the value of gifts that can be accepted to $50.
But, Peterson said, significant changes will be difficult because some Virginia legislators have come to rely on gifts and other perks as a way to supplement their salaries.
As part-time legislators, state delegates receive $17,640 a year. State senators are paid $18,000.
“There’s a larger cultural issue that we’re dealing with here,” Peterson said. “There are cases where people are entertained by a lobbyist, taken on trips by a lobbyist and, in my opinion, it does become a supplemental income stream.”
Because there is no limit to the value of gifts an elected official in Virginia is allowed to receive, gift-givers “have unique access,” he said. “Someone who gives you or a family member a gift worth $50,000 is going to play a very different role in your life than someone who gives you a $2,000 gift.”
Although many legislators are pushing for stricter regulations on gifts, some in Fairfax County want looser rules for their jurisdiction.
This month, seven of the county’s 10 supervisors recused themselves from a vote on a land-use question involving the nonprofit Inova Health System. The supervisors were acting on the advice of the county attorney, who cited a recent state Supreme Court opinion that elected officials in Fairfax must recuse themselves when they have financial ties to zoning applicants.
Two Fairfax supervisors serve on the Inova board of trustees. Others were forced to recuse themselves because they either received campaign contributions from those two supervisors or were given free dinners at the annual Inova winter gala.
The possibility of mass recusals in other zoning decisions has Fairfax supervisors reconsidering whether they should serve on nonprofit organizations’ boards or attend community dinners, which they see as part of their jobs as elected officials.
Krupicka said that issue may come up in broader talks about ethics reforms.
“I don’t think the electorate wants to prevent officials from going to charity events or serving on nonprofit boards,” he said. “If we’re going to make changes, we should look at it in a comprehensive way that applies to all situations in the state. We should probably have a consistent standard across the state.”
Some voters said they don’t believe the state will see meaningful ethics changes any time soon.
As he knocked on doors recently as part of his reelection campaign, Del. David L. Bulova (D-Fairfax) walked along a row of stately brick houses in the city of Fairfax. Along with talk of transportation and fiscal responsibility, Bulova emphasized the urgency behind ethics reforms.
“This is a golden opportunity to really do something meaningful in Virginia, and I hope we take advantage of that opportunity,” Bulova said.
Most who answered their doors agreed the situation is shameful.
“I feel embarrassed for Virginia, really,” Judy Fisher, 67, said while watering her front garden. “We haven’t been a state with a lot of publicity about that kind of stuff, and now all of a sudden we’re in the limelight, and I don’t like that.
“I don’t want to be in the limelight for that.”