Virginia finally seems on a path toward toughening its ethics rules after the Giftgate scandal involving Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. but — predictably — the deal reached by the two parties is toothless.
The arrangement proposed by a bipartisan group within the General Assembly would cap gifts to officials and their families at $250 and require biannual reporting of giving. But it would fall far short of creating an ethics commission with real power.
More than 40 states have ethics commissions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and most have subpoena power.
The Virginia proposal being pushed by House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) would do nothing of the sort. It would create a state ethics advisory commission (note the word “advisory”) made up of politicians and others.
In other words, it would not really investigate anything and would have no subpoena power. It would “educate” politicians about the rules, advise the General Assembly on ethics laws and help make sure that disclosure statements are filed online.
The deal would not do much with campaign financing, either, and lobbyist-supplied goodies such as free food and travel would be permissible.
In all, it would be a tiny step forward. It would require reporting of gifts to family members of officials and ban gifts to those family members worth more than $250. But the lack of a real ethics commission with independent power to probe and issue subpoenas means that Virginia would still have among the weakest ethics rules in the country.
As for increasing reporting of disclosure statements, the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project already does that, although it, too, has no teeth.
No one is required to check the reports filed by officials, although the information would at least be out there. It will be up to the news media and concerned citizens to do the legwork. And if they turn something up, where do they go?
When former Executive Chef Todd Schneider, later convicted of misdemeanors, had information about the McDonnells, he went to Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, who then sat on the information or months.
And regarding “educating” politicians about the rules, McDonnell certainly ought to have known them. He had been attorney general himself.
Sadly, this weak effort will do little to clean up the state’s political gift giving.