IT’S ABSURD to speak of any silver lining in the dreary cloud of scandal that engulfed Robert F. McDonnell’s fourth and final year as Virginia governor. The cash and gifts showered on him and his family by a favor-currying businessman have tainted his governorship, undercut his political prospects and embarrassed a state previously known for more-or-less clean government.
Nonetheless, if the scandal’s fallout includes a muscular package of ethics reforms, that would set Virginia’s political culture on a better course. The reforms proposed Tuesday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers are fine as far as they go — but they don’t go far enough.
Like generals determined to fight the last war, the legislators seem to have focused on averting a recurrence of the gifts-for-access problems that Mr. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, brought upon themselves. They appear less mindful of other sorts of ethical lapses that may bedevil officials or lawmakers.
Accordingly, the centerpiece of the reforms is a $250 ceiling on so-called tangible gifts from lobbyists and favor-seekers to lawmakers, state officials and their immediate relatives — think of the $15,000 catering bill picked up on the McDonnells’ behalf by Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the Richmond-area man who made members of Virginia’s first family the beneficiaries of his personal welfare program.
Likewise, the proposed reforms would require that such gifts to officials’ immediate family members (plus the family members’ personal finances) be disclosed; until now, they have been omitted from such requirements. Officials and their close relatives would be prohibited from soliciting expensive gifts, as Ms. McDonnell did in asking Mr. Williams to purchase a $6,500 Rolex watch as a “gift” for, and inscribed to, the governor.
If those reforms are enacted as proposed by House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville), Virginia probably won’t have to suffer through another disgrace that looks exactly like the one visited upon the state by the McDonnells. Good. As for other outrages — well, who knows?
Among the problems that would go unaddressed by this proposal is the issue of Virginia’s campaign finance rules, which contain loopholes of epic proportions. Lawmakers and state officials, though barred from accepting “tangible” gifts, still would be entitled to trips to Paris and fancy meals in New York, no matter what the price tag. Lawmakers such as Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax) could continue to charge their campaign accounts whenever they stop for groceries, french fries at McDonald’s or a car wash, with little regard for propriety or accountability.
A state ethics commission would be established by the reform, but it would be wan, weak and all but worthless. It would issue advice and “training” on conflicts of interest to officials but lack any investigative muscle or resources. In other words, the commission would be mainly cosmetic.
Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D), who takes office Saturday, promised to push for tough ethics reforms. This will be an early test of his resolve and political skill. If this proposal is the extent of the changes that Virginia adopts, it will be a very limited success for the new governor and a disappointment for Virginians.