Mr. McDonnell's Dodge

Friday, October 28, 2005

DEL. ROBERT F. McDonnell of Virginia Beach, a Republican, is the front-runner in Virginia's race for attorney general. If he wins on Nov. 8, he'll become Virginia's foremost law enforcement official. Yet as things stand, he would enter office tainted, complicit in ignoring the state law that insists the public should know where candidates get their cash. If he approaches this law with a wink and a nod, why should he be trusted to enforce the others?

Last week in this space we asked the McDonnell campaign to determine and disclose the identities of contributors who have channeled money to Mr. McDonnell through the Republican State Leadership Committee, a tax-exempt group that has been active in other states. This is no small matter: Mr. McDonnell has received more than $1 million from the RSLC, much of it in the past few weeks; among other things, this money has paid for a blitz of TV advertising in Northern Virginia. At the same time, the Virginia Board of Elections said groups such as the RSLC's Virginia committee should itemize contributions exceeding $100 and report any contributions above $10,000 on the board's Web site within three days.

The response from the RSLC and Mr. McDonnell? Silence.

The Republicans' reticence has concealed information that the state has clearly decided should be accessible to voters. Virginia law incorporates a trade-off: Somewhat unusually, it imposes no restrictions on categories of donors, nor does it put a ceiling on the amounts they may give. It balances that permissive stance by requiring timely disclosure of donors' identities.

The RSLC is taking refuge in the law's crevices to evade disclosure of the original sources of its contributions to the McDonnell campaign. Its Virginia political action committee lists the source of its money as the RSLC itself, and the RSLC maintains that it need not divulge its donors' names until it files the information with the Internal Revenue Service next year -- too late for voters to determine who stands behind Mr. McDonnell and which corporations, individuals or political interests want him elected. It's an artful dodge, suggesting disdain for the law as well as the public's right to know.

If there's any saving grace in this, it is that state lawmakers of both parties will almost certainly seek to close the loophole that the RSLC and Mr. McDonnell are using to hide who-knows-what information. Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, a Fairfax Republican who sits on the Senate's Privileges and Elections Committee, is already planning to introduce legislation next year that would put an end to the RSLC-McDonnell dodge. "We take great pride in being a solid disclosure state," the senator says. "If you can see who [the money is] coming from then you can make a good decision about who you want to support."

There's still time for Mr. McDonnell to honor that principle.

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