Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., Republican majority leader of Virginia’s Senate, is known for his folksy charm, snappy attire and relatively moderate politics. He’s also an avid hunter, as the tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts he’s received from lobbyists suggest.
According to his own disclosures, Mr. Norment accepted seven hunting trips worth about $19,000 between 2001 and 2007, and, since then, 12 trips that he described only as “travel,” worth $29,688. Three of those trips were each valued at more than $6,000.
Mr. Norment, of James City, a longtime member of Virginia’s powerful Senate Finance Committee, appears to have broken no state laws. Then again, it’s hard to break the law when the laws are so toothless. Under Virginia’s anything-goes ethics rules — the very rules that enabled former governor Robert F. McDonnell’s ethical obtuseness — virtually anyone can give practically anything to an officeholder, as long as it’s disclosed.
All but a few of the major trips Mr. Norment enjoyed were given to him by just three interest groups: Dominion, a Richmond-based power and energy giant; the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association; and the Virginia Public Safety Alliance, which represents several law enforcement agencies.
Each of those groups has business before the state legislature, where Mr. Norment is a key player. In that role, he has been bound by no limits on gifts or campaign donations. Richmond’s political class has convinced itself that this is all fine.
That’s the political culture in which Mr. McDonnell rose to prominence as a lawmaker, attorney general and, until eight months ago, governor. That’s why, as the scandal that triggered his downfall unfolded, he seemed taken aback at the suggestion that he had broken any laws. Under Virginia’s supremely slack state code, he didn’t; he was convicted under federal law.
Little wonder that Richmond’s political elite was astonished Thursday when the jury pronounced guilty verdicts for the McDonnells. And little wonder, too, that Mr. Norment, who issued a statement saying he disagreed both with the verdict and the decision to prosecute the McDonnells, said Virginia should now “move on.”
Sorry, Mr. Norment; that’s not going to wash. If he means that lawmakers will now forget the tawdry McDonnell episode, Virginians shouldn’t stand for it. The worst political scandal in state history occurred in a legal vacuum. The legislature must step in and fill it.
Lawmakers should start by adding muscle to the toothless 15-member ethics board, created this year, of which Mr. Norment is the only sitting member from the Senate. The board is so glaringly impotent that Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed its modest budget, leaving it a shell. It should be given real authority and investigative teeth, starting with subpoena power.
Virginia needs limits and stricter rules on campaign donations, gifts and trips. It needs regulations on campaign funds, which lawmakers may now use for virtually any purpose they like — groceries, snacks, gas fill-ups — even if there’s no connection to a genuine campaign function.
Above all, it needs officials who can break with the sleaze and complacency at the heart of the state’s political culture. Self-satisfied lawmakers have set the tone in Richmond for too long.