August 7, 2013

IN THE midst of Virginia’s most toxic ethics scandal in years, isn’t it curious that almost no one in Richmond — not the governor, not Democratic lawmakers, not Republican lawmakers — wants a special legislative session to clean up the state’s laughably lax ethics laws? Why is it that the only prominent official who has called for a special session is Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican candidate for governor, who has his own ethics problems?

Among elected officials in Virginia, there has been something approaching a conspiracy of silence on the subject of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s unholy involvement with Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the favor-seeking businessman who plied Mr. McDonnell, his wife, Maureen, and their daughters with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, gifts, loans and stays at vacation homes.

Republicans have been loath to mention it, lest they bring more ignominy down on the head of Mr. McDonnell, their party leader. Most Democrats have been similarly taciturn, possibly because they see political advantage in the status quo, in which Mr. McDonnell twists slowly in the wind until Election Day, thereby undercutting GOP fortunes.

That leaves Mr. Cuccinelli, who has his own entanglements with Mr. Williams — though not on the scale of Mr. McDonnell’s. While the governor and his family accepted upward of $150,000 in cash, loans and freebies from Mr. Williams, Mr. Cuccinelli accepted about $18,000, including a $3,000 summer vacation and a $1,500 catered Thanksgiving dinner at Mr. Williams’s luxury home on Smith Mountain Lake in southwestern Virginia. That gift went unreported for years, which Mr. Cuccinelli has called an oversight.

Mr. McDonnell, who has apologized for embarrassing the state, repaid the loans to Mr. Williams, with interest, and says he will return the cash “gifts” as well. Mr. Cuccinelli has refused to do the same, asserting feebly that “there are some bells you can’t unring.”

In fact, Mr. Cuccinelli is trying hard to unring that bell, albeit in political rather than monetary terms. Instead of doing the honorable thing by returning money to the favor-currying Mr. Williams, Mr. Cuccinelli has tried to distance himself from the scandal by calling for a special legislative session to put some muscle in Virginia’s anemic ethics laws.

His proposal was rejected by Mr. McDonnell, who prefers to leave the question to next year’s regular session of the General Assembly — after he leaves office. It was also dismissed by the Republican leadership in the House, which may not want to force lawmakers to take tough votes on ethics laws ahead of the November elections, in which all 100 seats in the House of Delegates will be on the ballot.

Whatever Mr. Cuccinelli’s motives, the importance of adding muscle to Richmond’s frail ethics regime is beyond question. The nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity gave Virginia an F last year in a report measuring the risk of public corruption; it ranked 47th among the 50 states. The General Assembly should fix this, and the sooner the better.