IN RICHMOND, politicians like to wax sentimental about the “Virginia Way,” by which they mean a brand of politics glossed by high-minded civility, rhetorical restraint and what passes for bipartisan comity. In fact, there is a second, less upright Virginia Way — complacent about public ethics and the laws necessary to enforce them.
The tragedy of former governor Robert F. McDonnell, indicted on federal corruption charges Tuesday just 10 days after leaving office, is that he exemplified both. Mr. McDonnell achieved important, ground-breaking accomplishments; he was a capable, substantive public servant; he was admired on both sides of the aisle. Yet he also exercised atrocious judgment as the state’s chief executive, indebting himself to a favor-currying businessman. Now Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, is the first of Virginia’s governors, a roster that stretches back to Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, to face criminal charges.
One of Virginia’s Ways has sometimes been used to justify the other: The state needn’t bother itself with tough public ethics laws, the self-satisfied argument went, because of the self-evident virtues of its exemplary political culture. Mr. McDonnell is Exhibit A for the vacuity of that point of view. If federal prosecutors are correct, he put himself squarely on the wrong side of the law even in Virginia’s permissive environment.
Whether or not he is convicted of any of the 14 felony counts he faces — and Mr. McDonnell is innocent unless proven guilty — he has disgraced himself and, as he acknowledged, embarrassed the people he was elected to represent. In devastating detail, the 43-page federal indictment lays out unseemly, at times gag-worthy, particulars. Both Mr. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, established a cozy relationship with Jonnie R. Williams, chief executive of a struggling former cigarette manufacturer that now sells dietary supplements. It is impossible to read the indictment — with its repeated examples of cash, vacations, gifts, loans, private jets, vacation houses and baubles swapped for official access and favors — without seeing that Mr. McDonnell debased the office he held and that Mrs. McDonnell was complicit in that tawdry work.
Over a two-year period ending in March of last year, the indictment says, the McDonnells participated in a scheme to use the governor’s official position to enrich themselves and their family members “by soliciting and obtaining payments, loans, gifts, and other things of value” from Mr. Williams. In return, the McDonnells conspired to “legitimize, promote, and obtain research studies” for Star Scientific products, the indictment alleges.
The “Virginia way” needs some urgent updating; Mr. McDonnell himself said as much before he left office by acknowledging the need for ethics reforms. Democrat Terry McAuliffe, newly sworn in as governor, has also promised to push for tighter laws. But a bipartisan bill drafted in response to Mr. McDonnell’s troubles is full of half measures and anemic reforms. Incredibly, even now leaders in Virginia’s legislature apparently believe they can temporize and merely touch up the state’s Swiss cheese laws.
That’s not good enough. For starters, Virginia needs a muscular ethics commission endowed with the resources and legal authority to pursue real investigations. Virginia needs much stricter limits not just on gifts to politicians and their families but also on campaign contributions. Virginia needs meaningful laws limiting the way campaign funds can be spent. If anything good can come from the ignominy of Mr. McDonnell’s governorship, it should be a state ethics regime second to none.