VIRGINIA LAWMAKERS are crafting legislation to beef up the anemic ethics reforms they passed last year as the scandal involving former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) was unfolding. Unfortunately, even now that Mr. McDonnell has been convicted and faces possible prison time , the legislature’s progress toward rigorous ethics rules consists mainly of half-steps — and even those are accompanied by grumbling.
In Richmond, the state Senate m ajority leader, Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), complained about the modest reforms under consideration, which he seems to regard as a conspiracy foisted on lawmakers by the media. He further professed indignation at the idea that he was corruptible. “You think I’m going to sell 24 years in public office for 250 bucks?” he said. “That insults me.”
What about $40,000 in freebies — would that be enough to elicit the concern of Mr. Norment’s constituents? That’s the value of two hunting trips, just nine weeks apart, to which Mr. Norment, a lawyer, was treated in late 2012, courtesy of the Virginia Public Safety Alliance, a group that advocates for several law enforcement agencies. Those small-group trips, to Canada and Maine, bracketed a third trip, to Georgia, paid for by Dominion, the Richmond-based power and energy giant, which was worth another $1,000, according to Mr. Norment’s disclosures on the Virginia Public Access Project Web site.
Under Virginia’s flaccid ethics laws, there has been no limit until now on the value of such “intangible” gifts and trips that legislators like Mr. Norment can accept. Under the legislation making its way through the state legislature, that loophole would be closed.
That could help explain Mr. Norment’s grumpiness. From now on he might have to pay his own way on hunting trips.
That would be a step toward ending the culture of coziness that has given rise to the sleaze in Richmond. So would a provision that would cap the value of gifts to lawmakers at $100, a tighter limit than the $250 maximum instituted last year.
More must be done. Virginia needs an independent ethics commission with delegated authority to interpret and enforce laws and rules governing conduct by the state’s elected officials and high-ranking public servants. The panel should have subpoena power and resources to mount investigations and issue advisory opinions.
Virginia also needs tighter rules governing campaign contributions. It is one of just a handful of states that puts no limits whatsoever on contributions, and it imposes barely any rules on the uses to which those contributions can be put. Lawmakers such as Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax) can, and do, use them to buy groceries, gasoline and fast food.
Mr. Norment’s resentment at having to adopt rules that in other states constitute a minimal standard of public ethics testifies to a culture of entitlement with deep roots in Richmond. It’s no accident that Virginia received a failing grade, and was ranked 47th out of the 50 states, in a comprehensive report on state ethics laws. It’s time for that to change.