Virginia long claimed it had an ethical political culture based on a tradition of civic service, genial debate, and gentlemanly behavior – until events proved otherwise in 2014. That’s when the conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell on federal corruption charges rocked Old Dominion politics.
Evidence presented in court showed that McDonnell and his family accepted $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, the then-CEO of a tobacco-turned-health-supplement company. At the time, neither the loans nor the gifts — rounds at a tony golf club, a $20,000 New York shopping spree for his wife, Maureen McDonnell, and a Rolex watch for the governor — were barred under state law. Virginia allowed unlimited gifts to its politicians, but required their disclosure.
McDonnell did not report most of Williams’ largesse, however, initially claiming they were exempt because the CEO was a close family friend and the gifts were primarily to his family. In the end, McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison on 11 counts of public corruption, although his case is still working its way through the appellate courts.
The state legislature responded in March 2014 by passing the first limits on gifts for politicians and their family members. It created a new ethics council to collect and publish disclosure forms for all branches of government.
In April, the gift limits were lowered to $100, a change sought by McDonnell’s successor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe; the new limits will go into effect in January. “We took an important step forward to strengthen the ethics legislation that was passed last year by further increasing transparency and accountability,” McAuliffe said in a statement August 31.
These improvements to ethics laws and oversight played a part in Virginia earning a score of 66, ranking it 16th in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
The creation of the new gift limits and the inclusion of lawmakers’ family members helped hike Virginia’s scores in several categories of the State Integrity Investigation. In 2012, Virginia scored 55 and came in at 47th out of the 50 states. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
Virginia also scored well in internal auditing and civil service, where it finished in third place, in part because of the creation of an inspector general’s office. This was a campaign promise of McDonnell’s. The Inspector General oversees a fraud, waste, and abuse tip hotline, and is empowered to investigate complaints as well as issues found by a separate auditor of public spending accounts. Evidence of any potential crimes is turned over to law enforcement.
Virginia ranked second in the category of procurement, partly because of the state’s readily accessible, web-based procurement disclosures. It offers a centralized database of procurement needs, bid winners and procurement rules and regulations.
State officials have “adopted the attitude that they want to be as pure as Caesar’s wife,” said Ron Jordan, executive director for the Virginia Governmental Employees Association, who worked in the executive and legislative branches for more than 20 years.
Watchdogs and independent observers lament that shortfalls still exist in the ethics law. No procedures exist for auditing the newly-expanded disclosures, and the ethics council lacks authority to investigate or discipline any government officials.
Only lobbyists, their employers or people seeking contracts with a state agency are covered by the gift ban, allowing others seeking official backing for private gains to continue giving items of value to lawmakers. Paying for lawmakers’ travel to meetings is not barred, although it must be disclosed and approved by the ethics council. And the gift ban does not cover sponsorship of “widely attended events,” as well as gifts of food and beverages at events where a public official is “performing official duties related to his public service.” These exemptions leave the door open for privately subsidized gatherings, large and small, that may not be disclosed.
Virginia again scored poorly on information access, lobbying disclosure and political financing. The state’s Freedom of Information Act has many exemptions, notably including all work conducted by the major regulatory body for businesses, insurance, financial institutions, utilities and railroads, known as the State Corporation Commission. Elected officials can also invoke exemptions that cover working papers or correspondence.
But the issue that needs urgent attention, said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, is fees. “Under the law, state government and local governments can charge for labor,” she said. “Partly because of shrinking budgets, we have departments charging for records” that did not previously demand payment, while others have simply increased their fees.
Virginia has no limits on donations to state-level election campaigns or inaugural committees, with the consequence that donations exceeding $100 vastly outnumber smaller donations in state elections. And the Department of Elections has no authority to audit campaign finance reports.
Lobbying declarations similarly are not subject to audits, and lobbyists sometimes find creative ways to stay below a $50 threshold for reporting. Multiple lobbyists have organized large events, for example, and split the costs among lobbyists and all the firms and businesses they work for. And when lobbyists do not make disclosures, legislators typically don’t either.
“Virginia’s laws rely on classical bribery, finding the quid pro quo,” said Dave Ress, reporter at the Daily Press newspaper, located in Newport News, Virginia. But such cases are few and far between, leaving much election financing in a gray zone. “If XYZ company drops $5,000 into a campaign fund, there’s a reason for that besides desiring good government. If a legislator [then] went along with a vote the company wanted, is that bribery?”