The Washington Post

The fund-raising loophole hiding in plain sight

Busted! We have brought the following shocking legal revelation to people’s attention, but apparently no one believes it worth discussing. We disagree, and leave it to you, the owners of Virginia, to decide.

For years now — 17 to be precise — Virginia politicians have bragged on themselves for having passed a “tough” law allegedly making it impossible for statewide and General Assembly office-holders to raise campaign cash during regular state legislative session.

They claimed this to be a fundamental necessity for cleaning up Virginia’s lax campaign fund-raising rules.

It’s not quite as  good a fairy tale as Pinocchio, but it will do for government work. It simply isn’t true. Moreover, the supposed “ethics reform” bill now awaiting the governor’s signature doesn’t address the ruse.

Truth is, in 2007, a majority of Democrats and Republicans quietly gutted the 1997 rule against PAC fundraising during the General Assembly session, creating a loophole big enough for a Brinks truck to drive through. They claimed that this was necessary due to the Virginia Supreme Court decision in the case Virginia Society for Human Life v Caldwell.

Truth is, the decision should have told the General Assembly the opposite: You need to fix the law to make it do what you originally claimed.

The 2007 “reform” changes the definition of what is a banned contribution during the session. A Political Action Committee set-up as a mere legal entity collecting millions for general political use — as opposed to one created to elect or defeat a specific candidate — is now not prohibited from raising money during a General Assembly session. This money ultimately may go to help or hurt a candidate. But that doesn’t matter legally.

We only discovered the loophole while being diligent reporters in following up on our recent scoop that donors could parlay $100,000 contributions into private dinners with the governor and top policy advisers. The governor’s new fund-raising vehicle, called the Common Good PAC, became public shortly after the General Assembly session ended. This caused us to wonder whether some form of solicitation had taken place during the session, if only to find out from prospective donors whether the $100,000 price point was too steep. State law provides a big penalty for anyone helping to get even an oral promise to make such a future contribution.

But the governor and aides need not worry. As we indicated above, there is no longer any law to break with regard to such a PAC. The Common Good PAC is good to go for fund-raising 24/7/365; it’s the same for legislators. There is no time-out for doing work at the General Assembly.

When asked, Republican election law expert Patrick McSweeney concurred. “It’s an illusion that we ever clamped down on any of this.” Democratic experts told us the same thing.

Since we wrote our post on the governor’s $100,000 dinners, we have been inundated with the following response: “Dudes, you guys are sooooo naive.”

Perhaps. But sometimes naivety is the only way to expose a political reality too easily excused by those who find idealism a pesky irritant.

Pay-to-play is poisoning our politics and government processes. This cancer reaches into our civic culture. It explains why poor kids in Virginia continue to go to crumbling schools while real estate developers are able to convince the General Assembly to shift upwards of $3 billion previously earmarked for education and spend it instead on new roads.

Our critics say: “McAuliffe isn’t doing anything all that much different than others.”

But that’s the problem. If anything goes, why prosecute former governor Robert McDonnell for not being smart enough to run all the money through a PAC?

So, yes, call us naive for thinking all this cannot possibly end well for Virginia. McAuliffe should amend the pathetically weak “ethics reform” bill on his desk and give it some real teeth.

Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site 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.




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