August 1, 2013

VIRGINIA GOV. Robert F. McDonnell, who disgraced himself and embarrassed the state by accepting gifts, loans and cash from a favor-seeking businessman, says he will propose fixes to state law so that future governors aren’t forced to endure the hardships that he, well, brought upon himself. Thus the fox proposes to mend the henhouse.

In fact, the governor and state lawmakers were explicitly warned that Virginia’s Swiss-cheese ethics laws are laughably inadequate. Richmond politicians have tended to ignore such warnings, taking comfort in the image — now proved to be an illusion — that the state’s political culture prizes transparency, rectitude and honest dealings.

Those bromides were aired last year after a survey by a group led by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity gave Virginia an “F” on a report card measuring the risk of corruption. The commonwealth, one of eight states to receive a failing grade, ranked 47th among the 50 states; it received especially poor marks for ethics enforcement, disclosure of lobbying activities and public access to information.

In response, Mr. McDonnell (R) pledged a “full and thorough review,” but there was little follow-up. Meanwhile, Virginia’s defenders piously dismissed the report’s conclusions that the state lacked safeguards against ethical misconduct.

“None of the measures allegedly missing in Virginia have any deterrent effect on dishonest or corrupt conduct by state officials,” wrote John M. Dowd, a prominent white-collar defense lawyer in Washington, in a letter published on this page. Around the same time, William J. Howell (R-Stafford), the speaker of the House of Delegates, sonorously declared that “neither ethical lapses nor public corruption are commonplace, let alone tolerated, in Virginia.”

The truth is that the state’s rules are so flimsy and riddled with loopholes that it has been nearly impossible to break them. In the absence of meaningful laws, no one looks like a lawbreaker.

Now that the curtain of self-righteousness has been shredded by the McDonnell scandal, the grandees in Richmond should turn their attention to serious ethics reform.

They should start by requiring disclosure of all gifts, loans and cash to relatives of top officials and lawmakers, not just to officeholders themselves. Had such a law been in place, it might have deterred Mr. McDonnell’s wife and daughters from accepting tens of thousands of dollars of loans, cash and gifts from from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. The status quo, which encourages secret cash payments masquerading as gifts to a politician’s nearest and dearest, amounts to an invitation to legal bribery.

But disclosure is not enough. Lawmakers need to consider reasonable limits on donations. As things stand now, Virginia is one of just four states with no ceiling on campaign donations. That’s asking for trouble.

It should also be illegal for politicians and their relatives to spend thousands of dollars from political action committees for personal expenses, as Mr. McDonnell’s wife did to purchase clothing.

An agenda for ethics reform should also include:

● The establishment of an independent state ethics commission, which roughly 40 states have;

● Regulations limiting nepotism, cronyism and patronage among members of the executive branch;

● A mechanism to provide for independent audits of disclosure forms filed by the governor and other executive-branch officials;

● And measures to ease public access to information, including extending Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act to cover the State Corporation Commission, which regulates businesses, utilities, financial institutions, insurance companies and railroads.

As a candidate, Mr. McDonnell called for the creation of a state ethics commission, acknowledging that Richmond should not continue to be an outlier. Now lawmakers should get serious about enacting laws and enforcement mechanisms to promote clean, open and honest government. Piety and empty rhetoric can no longer take the place of rules and institutions with teeth.