Del. Alson H. Smith (D-Winchester) is an affable, back-slapping, Tastee Freeze entrepreneur who has become something of a folk hero here for his uncommon talent for persuading Virginia businessmen to surrender their money to Democratic politicians. But last week, Smith's success at fund raising got him and his governor, Charles S. Robb, into the kind of trouble they had scrupulously managed to avoid since coming to power last year.
The result was a three-day tempest over seemingly suspicious political behavior that in the end produced momentary embarrassment to Robb and probably no lasting damage. But it also revealed what many legislators have long agreed is a source of greater embarrassment: the gaping loopholes in Virginia's campaign finance laws.
The furor centered on a political action committee formed by Smith called "Virginians for Good Government Inc.", an outfit that, despite its moniker, is not an offshoot of Common Cause. Although its purpose was vague--the explanation was that it would pay for Robb's political travels and contributed to Robb-approved political candidates--its funding was downright curious:
Of its $96,760 in start-up funds, more than half came from leftover Robb campaign contributions that had been collected by Smith and his associates after the 1981 election and, it turned out, never publicly reported.
Why were campaign contributions being collected after the election by a campaign that had no debts? Why was there no public disclosure?
Despite Smith's sometimes frantic efforts to respond, the questions multiplied. Legislators privately joked about "Chuck PAC" and hinted it looked like a launching pad for Robb's often-denied vice presidential ambitions. Others, noting Robb used the undisclosed monies for such events as parties at the mansion and the mailing of Christmas cards, called it a slush fund.
"I don't see where this has anything to do with a slush fund," replied Smith, turning increasingly testy through the week.
The campaign contributions--$52,230 in all--were never made public because state elections law apparently didn't require such disclosures from campaign committees with surpluses, Smith explained. To quench the media's thirst to know, Smith promised voluntary disclosure and then produced a hastily prepared list of 76 barely legible names and numbers scrawled by hand on an accountant's balance sheet.
There were some provocative entries. Thirteen businessmen from the Newport News area were listed as contributing $1,000 each on Jan. 13, 1982. And then there was this entry dated June 16: "Monument Associates, Wash D.C., $5,000."
What was Monument Associates and why was it giving $5,000 seven months after the election? Smith's original explanation for all the late contributions seemed less than satisfactory. "It just means they wanted to contribute but they forgot until after the election," he said.
Robb himself was hardly more helpful. The contributions simply were monies that "had just come in" after the election, he said at a Friday press conference, adding: "Frankly, I forgot about it." As for Monument Associates, "I frankly don't know who that is," he said.
In the end, two other Robb associates stepped forward to offer some explanations. The Newport News checks had been in the custody of Del. Alan Diamonstein (D-Newport News), the state Democratic Party chairman, who didn't get around to handing them over to Smith until January.
As for Monument, a company owned by Northern Virginia condominium developer Gary Nordheimer, William G. Thomas, the Alexandria lobbyist and close friend of Robb's, had the answer. "That was a contribution that I solicited and got pledged in August 1981," he said. "In January 1982, it just turned up in the mail and I turned it over to Al Smith ."
Why did it take until June before it was recorded in Barone's balance sheet? "That's something I can't explain," Thomas said.
From a group of political strategists who were so meticulous in plotting Robb's victory over J. Marshall Coleman, these and other explanations seemed, at the very least, sloppy.
But the whole affair never would have taken place if Virginia's laws governing campaign finance were as strict as those in many other states.
"I don't fault Robb for taking it," said House Minority Leader Vincent F. Callahan of Fairfax of the post-election contributions. "But the problem is the loophole in the law."
Robb already has indicated he will now support legislation, to be introduced by Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton, that would require disclosure of such post-election contributions. But that would be only the first step towards preventing campaign finance abuses, Callahan and others say.
Virginia, unlike many other states, does not require disclosure of contributions to political parties or party caucuses, which collect thousands of dollars from lobbyists each legislative session.
Virginia, unlike many other states, has no mechanism for reviewing campaign finance reports. And, unlike many other states, Virginia does not limit political donations or prohibit direct contributions from corporations and labor unions.
"It will probably take us years to close all the loopholes," Callahan said.