Shruti Shah is president and chief executive of the Coalition for Integrity, which promotes government transparency and accountability.
On Nov. 5, Virginians will head to the polls to elect members of the General Assembly. Whoever voters send to Richmond in this year’s elections should make anti-corruption and government transparency a priority. This issue matters to me as a Virginia voter, and I am not alone.
Ask most Virginians about corruption, and they will likely bring up former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), whose public-corruption-related charges made it all the way to the Supreme Court before being dismissed. While high-profile and controversial, Virginia’s government transparency and ethics problems run deeper than that single case.
Last year, the Coalition for Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, released the States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials Index. The Swamp Index ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia on laws regarding the establishment and scope of ethics agencies, the powers of those agencies, acceptance and disclosure of gifts by public officials, transparency of funding independent expenditures and client disclosure by legislators. Virginia’s ranking is a disappointment. Not only did Virginia only score a 35 on a scale of zero to 100, but also it was one of the 10 worst states in the country for anti-corruption measures. Specifically, the study found that while Virginia has agencies that oversee ethics and corruption issues for executive and legislative officials and employees — the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Advisory Council and the House and Senate ethics advisory panels — these organizations are toothless because they have no enforcement powers.
What is to be done about the dismal state of Virginia’s anti-corruption measures?
First, elected officials can work within the confines of current law to demonstrate their commitment to transparency and integrity. Legislators and candidates for office in Virginia are already required to disclose campaign committee contributions and expenditures and information concerning assets and income. Incumbent legislators but not candidates are required to disclose receipt of certain gifts. However, these disclosures are filed with different state agencies and archived on separate websites, where they are of little use to all but the most enterprising of voters. To better educate the public, candidates for the General Assembly should post these disclosures in one easy-to-access location on their campaign website.
Second, and perhaps more significant, structural reform is needed. Virginia’s ethics agencies must have the power to enforce the ethics rules, not merely provide advice and hope it is followed. Because of this, it is imperative for candidates for the General Assembly to pledge to support legislation giving enforcement power to Virginia’s ethics agencies.
Increasing trust in government starts with enhanced transparency and stronger ethics oversight. This year, candidates for the Virginia General Assembly can begin by enhancing their own transparency and pledging to give the state’s ethics agencies real enforcement powers.