Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday proposed forming an independent ethics commission to oversee elected officials and their staff.
McAuliffe, seeking to capitalize on news that the FBI was investigating Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s financial ties with a wealthy donor, said that, as governor, he would tighten ethics standards for all elected officials and create an independent eight-member commission to enforce them.
McAuliffe said the bipartisan panel’s members would be chosen by the governor, the speaker of the House of Delegates and the Senate Majority Leader. The chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court would also select two members, who could be a retired judge, active member of the bar or a law professor.
“Virginians deserve better than to have their leaders just say ‘Trust me’ while having no real accountability,” McAuliffe said in a written statement.
McAuliffe’s ethics commission proposal comes a week after he also proposed a gift ban that he said he would enforce on himself even if the Virginia General Assembly failed to pass such a law.
The timing also coincides with a story in The Washington Post saying that the FBI has been conducting interviews about the relationship between McDonnell, his wife, Maureen, and a major campaign donor who paid for the food at the wedding of the governor’s daughter.
The Post, citing four people familiar with the questioning, said Tuesday that agents have been inquiring about gifts the family received from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and actions the Republican governor and his wife have taken to promote the company.
Democrats have also been calling for an investigation into Williams’s relationship with Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and urging him to resign. On Friday, Cuccinelli (R) revealed that he had received more gifts from Williams than he had previously reported. Cuccinelli, who said the oversight was inadvertent, amended his disclosure forms and asked the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney to review his disclosure filings.
As a candidate, McDonnell also pledged to establish an independent ethics commission. But PolitiFact Virginia, labeling the pledge a “Broken Promise,” said the governor decided such a commission was no longer necessary because he had improved government oversight of Virginia’s government by establishing an inspector general’s office to root out waste and fraud.
The Virginia General Assembly also took a run at reforming ethics oversight after then-Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News) was snared in a federal corruption investigation for seeking a job at Old Dominion University while securing money for the school as one of the legislature’s dozen budget negotiators. But even some modest reform proposals failed to advance. Hamilton was convicted of bribery and extortion and sentenced in August 2011 to nearly a decade in prison.
Last year, a broad assessment of government accountability – conducted by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International, and nonprofit Global Integrity – gave Virginia a failing grade and ranked the commonwealth 47th nationwide.
McAuliffe’s Republican opponents said they agreed with the need for ethical oversight but suggested that McAuliffe was hardly the person to propose such a panel.
“As Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli has taken numerous steps toward a more ethical and transparent government, including setting up the Inspector General’s office to investigate fraud, waste and abuse and putting the Office of the Attorney General’s budget online for public view,” campaign spokeswoman Anna Nix said in a written statement. “Virginians don’t need an ethics lesson from Terry McAuliffe considering he played a major role in a contribution swap scheme with the Teamsters that resulted in four convictions and was deposed about his role in selling access to the Lincoln Bedroom. This is just another example of Terry McAuliffe having no shame and attempting to insult the intelligence of Virginia voters.”
Republicans have also been badgering McAuliffe to release his full tax returns.
Days after Cuccinelli opened eight years of tax returns to inspection by the media, McAuliffe provided three years’ of tax summaries.
The summaries showed that McAuliffe had earned $16.5 million in three years, including $6.9 million in capital gains. But the six pages McAuliffe released revealed nothing about the sources of his income or whether he has benefitted from overseas tax shelters. The GOP argued that McAuliffe should meet the same standard for transparency as he had demanded of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
McAuliffe’s campaign batted away accusations that the proposal was a cynical ploy coming from McAuliffe.
“In other words, Ken Cuccinelli is refusing to support an independent ethics commission just like he refused to support a gift ban for elected officials,” McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said in a written statement. “When it comes to ethics reforms, thousands in unreported luxury gifts, and his conflict of interest with a company under federal investigation, Ken Cuccinelli’s answer is ‘just trust me.’”