AFTER MUCH huffing and puffing, and more than a little whining and blaming the media, Virginia lawmakers passed a state ethics bill last month so anemic you almost wonder why they bothered. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) can, and should, offer amendments to give it some muscle.
True, legislative luminaries such as Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) will be deprived of hunting trips to Canada and Maine, worth tens of thousands of dollars, courtesy of friendly, favor-seeking lobbyists. That change, thanks to legislative language capping the value of “intangible gifts” to lawmakers at $100 a pop, counts as a step forward in Richmond’s disgracefully lax culture of entitlement.
It’s also good that gifts to lawmakers and officials from lobbyists and other self-interested actors will be capped at $100 rather than the existing $250. But although the current limit is an annual aggregate, the new $100 limit applies to each separate gift, meaning that a lawmaker could receive countless goodies as long as the value of each stays under the limit. That hardly counts as progress.
The answer is that the princelings who populate Richmond’s legislature are convinced they are owed freebies and favors for their trouble in serving the public. Somehow, they have assured themselves that the bribery scandal that engulfed former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), convicted last year of 11 felony corruption counts in federal court, has nothing to do with them.
The result is half-hearted ethics legislation shot through with exceptions and exemptions — for example, excusing lawmakers from reporting free meals in the course of performing their “official duties,” which could mean, well, practically anything. Gifts from “personal friends,” who are fuzzily defined, are also exempt from the $100 cap.
Yet as Mr. McDonnell learned from his “personal friend” Jonnie R. Williams Sr., whose $177,000 in gifts and loans were seen by jurors as bribes, one man’s “personal friend” in politics is another’s man’s witness for the prosecution.
In addition, the legislation does nothing to address the absence of rules governing campaign funds, which some lawmakers use routinely to pay for their meals, groceries, gas and other personal expenses.
The bill’s most glaring defect is that it creates an ethics council whose functions are mostly advisory — read: toothless — and that lacks the power to initiate investigations, issue subpoenas or impose fines. Stripped of its six citizen members, foreseen in an earlier version of the legislation, the council’s nine members include four sitting lawmakers — one of whom will be Mr. Norment, who in 2012 accepted more than $40,000 worth of hunting trips paid for by lobbyists.
It was Mr. Norment himself, along with House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who, after the McDonnell scandal, issued a brave-sounding news release pledging ethics reform. The two Republican leaders promised that “where loopholes exist, we will close them” and that “where action is needed, we will act.”
When the dust settled in the GOP-controlled legislature, the loopholes stayed wide open, and the action turned out to be mostly pantomime.
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