Virginia’s notorious “pay to play” political culture just got a bipartisan thumbs-up from top state politicians. Many Virginians believed the ethical tangles of outgoing governor Robert F. McDonnell and attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II guaranteed serious ethics reform this year. How naive.
It is sweeping all right: It sweeps the real “pay for play” issues right under the rug. While the package contains some notable reforms, it utterly fails to address fundamental ethical problems exposed by recent high-profile problems.
1. Favor-seekers can still give a governor $165,000.
Bipartisan condemnation accompanied revelations of the roughly $165,000 in gifts and loans given to McDonnell and his family by businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. McDonnell eventually conceded that his actions were wrong and repaid the money. Yet this week’s “sweeping” reforms would still allow Williams — or anyone else — to do this. The only difference: Instead of giving directly to the governor, a check would have to go to his political action committee.
It’s a difference with no real distinction. The first amendment permits Virginia to reasonably limit money given to a governor’s PAC by anyone doing business with the state. House leaders concede that excessive amounts given to public officials “create the appearance of impropriety and undermine the public trust.” They claim their “reforms will safeguard that trust.” No so: Elected officials can still get the money, just in a different pocket.
2. Secretive favor-seeking is still permitted.
One reason Williams operated below the radar is a huge loophole in the state’s lobbying rules. The federal probe into McDonnell aims to determine whether Williams gave the loans and gifts in order to influence governmental action. But even if that allegation is proven true, the businessman wouldn’t have had to register as a lobbyist under state laws to do this, since he would have been seeking to influence the governor or top administration officials — and not the General Assembly. Many special interests in Richmond pay large sums behind the scenes to advocates to pressure the executive branch on pending legislation. This technique is fundamental to Virginia’s “pay to play” culture.
3. Full employment for lawyers.
Newly elected Attorney General Mark Herring strongly criticized Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for requiring taxpayers to pay for private lawyers assigned to McDonnell and other administration personnel. They were considered potential witnesses in a possible trial of Executive Mansion chef Todd Schneider. Cuccinelli said he had a conflict of interest that made it impossible for his office to provide counsel to the governor and the others. He invoked a vague statute allowing for use of private lawyers instead. The result: Taxpayers are footing legal bills approaching $800,000.
The criminal case got settled months ago, without any trial. Yet the legal meter is still running. The House’s proposed reforms don’t address this situation. Mr. Herring has yet to say whether he will stop this gravy train benefiting politically connected law firms.
4. Weekends in Paris on us
Remember the “reform” promises after the public learned lawmakers were given free trips to France by a company trying to get them to remove the state’s ban on uranium mining. The roundtrip package had a roughly $10,000 value. The “sweeping bipartisan ethics reform” will still allow such trips.
Virginia’s “pay to play” culture is perhaps more entrenched than ever. Democrats speak eloquently about income inequality and racial discrimination. Republicans offer odes to the free market and criticisms of crony capitalism.
Forget blue states and red states; forget white or black or brown. Paul Newman had it right: The play always comes down to “The Color of Money.”
Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.