How Virginia politics got so dirty — and why it’s hard to clean up

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Peter Galuszka is a veteran Virginia journalist who blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion and The Washington Post’s local opinions blog, All Opinions Are Local.

It’s known as the Virginia Way.

Richmond political culture clings to a quaint notion that its elected representatives are gentlemen and ladies who are above the petty venality that afflicts lesser states.

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“Neither ethical lapses nor public corruption are commonplace, let alone tolerated, in Virginia,” House Speaker Bill Howell has said .

“Virginia is a great example of good and clean government because it has high standards, great discipline and pride in its public service,” white-collar defense lawyer John M. Dowd of Vienna wrote in The Washington Post.

This presumption of noblesse oblige has prevailed since the days of Gov. Patrick Henry and Gov. Thomas Jefferson, when the General Assembly was a clubby conclave of landholders — not exactly the sort of men to tolerate questions about their honesty.

It’s bolstered by a political history that includes remarkably few high-profile corruption cases. Bob McDonnell is the first sitting governor since the founding of the state to face a corruption investigation. Contrast that with Illinois, where more than half of the governors since 1970 have been convicted of corruption.

So while the gift scandal that has tarnished McDonnell has assured that ethics reform will be on the legislative agenda next year in Richmond — regardless of who prevails in Virginia’s election Tuesday — many politicians in the state see the case as an anomaly. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli maintained that it was “completely inconsistent with Virginia’s very reserved traditions.”

Cuccinelli and Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe support the creation of an ethics commission and stricter limits on gifts. But as a reporter who has covered Virginia politics off and on since 1975, I can attest that reform efforts aren’t likely to get far. Too many Old Dominion politicians buy into Virginia’s moral exceptionalism. Or they realize that the lax ethics rules and limited oversight that are justified by it make it easier for them to win and stay in office.

Virginia’s laws governing money in politics are especially egregious. The state is among only four that have no limits on campaign contributions. Nor is there a cap on gifts to elected officials, as long as they disclose annually anything worth more than $50. Virginia’s formidable complex of corporations and lobbying groups pumps millions of dollars into state political campaigns and lays on perks such as steak dinners, Redskins tickets and extended travel to such diverse spots as France, Taiwan and Turkey.

One loophole highlighted by the McDonnell story: The disclosure requirement doesn’t extend to officials’ immediate family members or companies the officials may own. So McDonnell didn’t report that the chief executive of Henrico County-based Star Scientific gave $70,000 in loans to MoBo Real Estate Partners, owned by the governor and his sister; or that the CEO paid for a $15,000 New York shopping trip for the first lady and later wrote her a check for $50,000; or that he picked up a $15,000 catering bill for the wedding of one McDonnell daughter and gave a $10,000 engagement gift to another.

Similarly unbelievable are Virginia’s rules for how campaign money can be spent. “There are no restrictions,” Nikki Sheridan , spokeswoman for the Virginia State Board of Elections, told The Post. “If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that.”

More common is for lawmakers to charge their campaign and political action committees — funded in large part by special interests such as power company Dominion and cigarette-maker Altria — for day-to-day expenses such as groceries and gas. For instance, Tim Hugo of Fairfax, the third-ranking Republican in Virginia’s House of Delegates, expensed nearly $30,000 for travel and food and $9,400 for his cellphone over an 18-month period.

All this would be less worrisome if there were decent checks on what lawmakers were up to. But Virginia has no independent ethics commission — as 41 other states do. Expense reports aren’t audited, and no one systematically reviews disclosure statements. The nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project does collect and distribute data from the state on political donations and gifts. It doesn’t fact-check, though, says Executive Director David Poole: “That’s never been our role.”

Meanwhile, Old Dominion traditions ensure that voters are removed from the political process as much as possible. Since 1851, the state has held its elections in off years, which means that far fewer Virginians turn out to vote for governor than to vote for president.

Virginia also isn’t a big fan of freedom of information. The state won a Supreme Court case in April about blocking out-of-state Freedom of Information Act requests. A new consortium to support the development of nuclear power is immune from FOIA requests. And much of the work of the State Corporation Commission, which sets utility rates and deals with business cases in closed-door meetings, isn’t subject to the FOIA.

These sorts of practices contributed to Virginia’s failing grade in a 2012 report by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity and two partners assessing states’ corruption risk. Critics of that report question how closely the indicators it used — including government accountability, ethics enforcement and public access to information — relate to the prevalence of corruption. After all, New Jersey, where a dragnet in 2009 nailed three mayors and two state assemblymen with international money laundering charges, received the best score of all 50 states. But of course, it’s easier to charge people with corruption if you have laws that ban it.

Even with its virtually nonexistent ethics rules, Virginia comes in 10th — right after New Jersey — for the most public employees convicted of corruption between 2000 and 2010 as a percentage of population. This ranking includes Virginia’s thousands of federal workers. But presumably the Old Dominion would see even more convictions if it prohibited practices that are illegal in other states and if it were better equipped to identify politicians who cross the line.

Virginia’s highest-profile corruption conviction to date came in 2010, when former finance secretary John W. Forbes II was sentenced to 10 years in prison for defrauding the state’s tobacco commission of $4 million, which he spent on a fancy new house and personal investments.

The tobacco commission itself offers a great case study of shady ethics in Virginia. Set up in 1999 to distribute some of the state’s $4.1 billion share of the national tobacco settlement, it served as a slush fund for pet projects in the tobacco belt for a decade.

While many states spent the bulk of their settlement money on health programs or advertisements to discourage young people from smoking, Virginia put half of its settlement funds into a trust for tobacco-farming communities. It gave handouts of up to $12,000 to anyone with a quota to grow tobacco. The idea was to help wean growers off the golden leaf. But the checks went out whether or not quota-holders were growing tobacco at the time — and whether or not they lived in the state. The business magazine I was editing then found that in one county, 28 percent of the people who received checks didn’t live in Virginia at all, but in places such as Philadelphia and Las Vegas.

I was hardly surprised when the tobacco commission came up in the McDonnell case. E-mails showed that the Star Scientific chief believed that the governor was helping to get his company research funding from the commission. Star, which developed a nutritional supplement using a chemical found in tobacco, didn’t end up receiving commission money. But plenty of special interests did over the years.

It’s easy to understand why Virginia governors and legislators aren’t interested in changing these Old Dominion traditions — and why reform proposals never go anywhere. Calls for an ethics commission pop up from time to time. I remember writing about it when I was a reporter at the Virginian-Pilot in the ’70s. Its chances now are equally poor.

What Virginians will probably see are small, cosmetic shifts, such as requiring immediate family members to report gifts and perhaps some new limits on their value. The current political structure is just too entrenched to change more dramatically.

Plus, deep down, some Virginians still want to believe the myth of the gentlemanly cavaliers.

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