Opinions

Give Virginia the gift of strong ethics laws

Tim Kaine, a Democratic U.S. senator, was governor of Virginia from 2006 to 2010.

The new year presents a superb opportunity to fix a major Virginia weakness: our lax ethical laws. Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe and the state legislature have a clear chance to do something right, popular and necessary. They should strike immediately and achieve a legacy accomplishment early in 2014.

The principal fix needed is a dramatic restructuring of gift laws. Under current law, anyone can give anything to an elected official so long as it is reported. If the gift is from a “friend,” it need not be reported. If the gift is to an official’s spouse or other family members, it need not be reported.

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Virginia’s wide-open rule is justified by a smug attitude: We can trust ourselves to do the right thing, and transparency is all that is needed to keep the system honest. But since the 2011 prosecution of former Newport News delegate Phil Hamilton for bribery and extortion, the revelation that advocates of uranium mining in the commonwealth flew legislators to France and the recent controversy around gifts to the family of Gov. Bob McDonnell, we can no longer pretend Virginia’s law makes sense.

Gifts to elected officials can create a subconscious sense of gratitude in even the most upright public servants. And the public probably will perceive such gifts as creating improper influence, whether or not that happens. With no limit on the amount of such gifts and with the exceptions for friends and family so broad, Virginia’s system is all but guaranteed to create problems. Meanwhile, many people who advocate for important positions and perspectives cannot afford to give gifts to officials. This puts them at a disadvantage when compared with those who can.

I served under the Virginia law for nearly 15 years and received gifts that were duly reported. But serving in the U.S. Senate, I must abide by a much tougher standard. Gifts from lobbyists are banned, as are gifts worth more than $50 from anyone else. All gifts, aside from a narrowly defined exception for friends, must be reported. Most states have similar rules, and some are even stricter.

Having served under both systems, I can say that the benefits of the federal rule are obvious. I regret that I didn’t propose adopting it when I was governor of Virginia.

If a bipartisan group of Virginia’s leaders were to propose a gift ban, it would have huge popular support. This would fix a problem that has become embarrassing for the commonwealth. A few legislators who have grown used to the current system may be reluctant to adopt such a ban, but most of them realize that our state’s reputation needs a boost.

The real benefits of public office are the intangible joys of helping others rather than advancing oneself. Gifts to officials and their families need to be restricted to show that Virginia understands what public service is all about.

 
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