Va. governor, nominee ignore ethics issue of private posts

Thursday, January 7, 2010

VIRGINIA GOV.-ELECT Robert F. McDonnell's ethically tone-deaf insistence on choosing a commerce secretary who refuses to forfeit his seats on several corporate boards is deeply troubling. It suggests that neither Virginia's incoming chief executive nor his pick for the state's top trade official cares much for ethics in government, the potential for conflicts of interest or the idea that public service entails personal sacrifice. Why in the world would Mr. McDonnell want to send those messages on the eve of his inauguration as the commonwealth's 71st governor?

The man whom Mr. McDonnell has tapped as his secretary for commerce and trade is Robert C. Sledd, a successful Richmond businessman. Mr. Sledd's experience in business is extensive, but by his actions and words he projects limited understanding of the nature of government service. From the outset, he set conditions on accepting the job in Mr. McDonnell's cabinet that suggest he regards the position as a sort of honorary post. In fact, it entails overseeing 13 agencies of state government.

In addition to refusing to give up his membership on three corporate boards -- and the more than $200,000 in annual cash income (plus stock options) that entails -- Mr. Sledd has also said he would renounce his government salary of about $150,000. In other words, he proposes to serve in state government while drawing compensation from the private sector. His initial comment on the matter, published by the Roanoke Times, is that "I kind of need that income" from the corporate boards. He has since explained that he uses the $200,000 from his board memberships to make charitable donations, especially to help the homeless.

That's a fine and admirable thing; it also provides Mr. Sledd with a tax advantage. More worrisome is the potential for conflicts of interest. His board memberships include a pool supply company, a medical supplies distributor and Universal Corp., a Richmond firm that is one of the world's largest tobacco merchants. As a member of those boards, he is legally obligated to seek to maximize profits for the companies. How does that square with government service?

The somewhat implausible answer from Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Sledd is that they anticipate no conflict of interest. If they encounter one, Mr. Sledd says he will recuse himself from participating in his capacity as a state official. After all, they say, that's what lawmakers do. But the difference is that Virginia lawmakers are by definition citizen-legislators; they're part-timers. By contrast, the post of commerce and trade secretary is a full-time job. That's what Virginians expect and deserve, and that's what Mr. McDonnell should give them -- if not in the person of Mr. Sledd, then in another nominee who is prepared to devote full-time energies to the position.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company