AMID THE NON-STOP titillation streaming from the trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, who are facing corruption charges in federal court in Richmond, it’s easy to lose sight of the self-satisfied political culture and anemic ethics laws that provided fertile ground for their conduct.
Repeatedly in recent years, Virginia lawmakers have refused to add teeth to ethics laws that are among the most lax in the nation. Repeatedly, leaders of both parties in Richmond have paid homage to one of Richmond’s most popular shibboleths: that when it comes to public corruption, character is everything and laws don’t matter.
Thus did legislators manage to stymie any meaningful reforms in Virginia’s anti-corruption laws in 2010, the year Mr. McDonnell was sworn-in as governor, even amidst a scandal involving an influential lawmaker who sought a job at Old Dominion University even as he helped earmark money for the school in budget deliberations.
Two years later, a comprehensive nationwide report on ethics laws, conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, ranked Virginia 47th among the 50 states, assigning it failing grades in nine of 14 categories. The report found that Virginia was one of the only states with no limits on campaign contributions and no state ethics commission, a double-whammy of heedlessness that amounted to an open invitation to influence-peddlers. And still lawmakers did nothing.
When the McDonnells’ tawdry scandal burst into the headlines last year, leaders of the General Assembly gave scant thought to convening a special session to address the state’s Swiss cheese ethics laws. And even after the stunning revelations contained in the federal indictment of the McDonnells emerged in January, the legislature took a minimalist approach, leaving Virginia’s rules on gifts and disclosures riddled with enormous loopholes.
In its wisdom, the General Assembly did not even bother tightening some of the flaccid laws that allowed Mr. McDonnell to accept unlimited amounts of so-called “intangible” gifts — meals, travel, trips and the like — from a favor-seeking businessman. While lawmakers capped at $250 the value of tangible gifts that office-holders and their immediate relatives can accept, they placed no limits on the cumulative value or number of those gifts.
Legislators offered a smoke screen of excuses for their inaction, suggesting that tough laws would ensnare law-abiding officials who just happened to be careless. But in many other states, as well as the U.S. Congress, the laws are unambiguous, banning gifts, favors and services that a reasonable office-holder would understand were offered in order to curry favor.
The McDonnell trial is currently rebranding Richmond as a capital on an ethical par with Baton Rouge, Springfield, Trenton and Albany. It’s not nice company. Let’s hope the revelations of sleaze jar Virginia lawmakers from their complacency, and that 2015 becomes the year they decide that the “Virginia Way” involves not just honorable intentions, but muscular laws.