Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s call for a special session of the General Assembly to consider plugging “severe holes” in the state’s ethics laws is outrageously self-serving, but it does point to what may be a turning point in Virginia’s attitudes about disclosure and gift rules.
It’s about time. Virginia has perhaps the most lax ethics laws in the nation. It is one of only a handful of states not to have a formal state ethics commission. Instead, it relies on a polyglot of groups to flag ethical transgressions. And there are so many loopholes in the rules that it’s hard to get anything right.
The scandal involving Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his family, along with Cuccinelli himself, is a playbook for what’s wrong. Unlimited gifts are allowed, as long as they are reported, but no one is responsible to see that they are reported. Gifts to close relatives of public officials, such as those to Maureen McDonnell, the governor’s wife, and their children, are acceptable and don’t need to be reported.
McDonnell has squelched Cuccinelli’s cynical maneuver by insisting that the matter wait until the winter General Assembly session, denying the attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate a chance to make hay out of ethics reform during the campaign. The governor, meanwhile, has said he has repaid $124,000 in loans to him and his wife from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and that he and his family will return all of the gifts
Cuccinelli has been cleared by a prosecutor for being late in reporting his own links to Williams Sr. and his company, Star Scientific, which has brought so much woe to the McDonnells. But he has nonetheless been up to his eyeballs in questionable ties to Williams and his firm. Those ties have undeniably affected his performance as attorney general, causing him to recuse himself from several important legal cases.
Far bigger issues loom, such as how to get on with ethics reform. Currently in Virginia, the leader in disclosure is actually not a state agency at all, but a nonpartisan, non-profit group called the Virginia Public Access Project, which maintains a comprehensive database of disclosure data it gets from the state, notably the State Board of Elections.
David Poole, VPAP’s director, explained to me that the group was started in 1997 as a demonstration project to show the elections board how to gather and disclose data involving political donations, lobbying work and statements of economic interest for officials. Says Poole: “After a few years, it became clear that VPAP served a larger purpose – of stitching together public records spread across several state agencies that deal with money in politics.”
But Poole adds: “VPAP is not an ethics commission.” Rather, it is an independent group “dedicated to making it easier for people to access information about Virginia politics, particularly money in politics.” The organization is capable of doing only limited fact-checking on state reports.
The problem, as I see it, is that despite VPAP’s considerable and positive contributions and clear mission, it has generally been considered by some to be something like an ethics board that has the power to investigate and subpoena documents – activities it obviously cannot and should not be doing. If a politician lies or does not file reports on time, there isn’t anything VPAP can do about it.
That is why Virginia needs an ethics commission. That should be Job One, besides drastically limiting gifts and including disclosure of presents to immediate family members or forbidding them all together.
For decades Virginia has held a conceit that its public officials are above reproach and that it was somehow bad form to question them. Those days are obviously over.