VIRGINIA GOV. L. Douglas Wilder used to talk a lot about the public's interest in knowing what government officials are up to when money is involved. But not so now, when he's got a stash that was originally collected for his inaugural celebration. About all he will share with the public so far is that he will use these profits for political activities designed to raise his national profile -- which may not have been exactly what the donors had in mind when he took office in January. Exactly what Gov. Wilder does have in mind for the money is artfully unclear, other than word from a spokeswoman that these political activities probably will include out-of-state travel and campaigning for candidates outside Virginia. Quite aside from the many questions about legalities, the governor's secrecy is unbecoming and contrasts sharply with the policies of his predecessors.
The evolution of Gov. Wilder's stand on disclosure parallels his rise to prominence since winning the governorship -- gaining early attention in the spring, when he responded to questions by saying, "I will determine whatever is made known when I choose to have it made known." That may be, but there are more than a few circumstances under which he may have no choice under the law. Depending on what his activities turn out to be, he may be required to register some group as a political action committee. If the governor eventually becomes a national candidate, the money spent from his last inaugural fund would have to be disclosed under federal election law. There are federal prohibitions against taking and using money from corporations and limits on individual contributions.
How the laws may or may not apply should not be the only measure for Gov. Wilder, however, unless he's abandoning his 20-year advocacy of maximum public disclosure as well the support of Virginians who thought that the policies of voluntary openness on the part of past governors would continue. What's wrong with coming clean with the constituents?