TOMMY NORMENT wants to take Virginians on a stroll — a stroll down memory-impaired lane.
Mr. Norment (R-James City), the majority leader of the state Senate, gained notoriety for complaining bitterly when the legislature tightened Virginia’s squishy ethics laws after former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2014.
Little wonder: Mr. Norment, who was treated to multiple lavish hunting trips worth thousands of dollars and financed by deep-pocketed lobbyists and corporations, was among the chief beneficiaries of the anything-goes culture that prevailed in Richmond’s bad-old days. After all, what fun can a majority leader have now that he must operate under the rigid strictures of a $100 annual gift limit?
Now Mr. Norment is leading the charge to chip away at the more stringent gift and ethics laws adopted over the past two years. In doing so, he’s evidently hoping the memory of the McDonnell scandal has faded sufficiently so that Virginians will forgive the backsliding. Hey, what are some free meals, trips and gifts between friends, especially when the friends are interest groups and the recipients write the commonwealth’s laws?
Quite a lot, actually. Mr. Norment’s contempt for public ethics notwithstanding, the fact is that the McDonnell gift scandal did not arise in a vacuum. It was the product of the state capital’s culture of ethical leniency. Remember: Even though the former governor accepted $177,000 in gifts and loans from a favor-seeking Virginia businessman — a Rolex, lake house vacations, a shopping spree for his wife — Mr. McDonnell was not charged with or convicted of violating any state law. That was because that state ethics laws were so lax that they enabled a sort of ethical blindness. Federal prosecutors did not suffer from such an affliction.
Mr. Norment evidently still does. Last year, when the General Assembly enacted legislation capping the value of gifts to lawmakers and state officials at $100, he whined that it was being done exclusively at the media’s behest. Then, in a masterstroke of hypocrisy, he got himself appointed to the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.
Now, Mr. Norment has advanced legislation, which passed the Senate, that would lift limits on the value of trips and gifts for lawmakers paid for by nonprofits and certain interest groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate group that pushes right-wing legislation in state capitals. Perhaps, after a hiatus, Mr. Norment will resume his beloved hunting trips, if the right benefactor can be found.
The loopholes advocated by Mr. Norment constitute a large step backward, and, if they become law, the beginning of a resurrection of the very attitude toward ethics that made Richmond a national laughingstock.