08.01.2014  |   | Subscribe  | Contact us

All News & Blogs

E-mail Alerts

Ethics bill (of goods)
Summary text goes here

Date published: 4/14/2014

AS THE General Assembly dawned in January, high on its agenda was to beef up Virginia's lame ethics and disclosure laws, which are regarded as among the nation's weakest. In light of Giftgate, the scandal that dogged former Gov. Bob McDonnell for the final year of his term and resulted in federal charges against him and first lady Maureen McDonnell, reform enjoyed strong bipartisan support.

But it doesn't take a seasoned political analyst to recognize that lawmakers' efforts to police themselves tend to be big on talk and short on action. The bill recently signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe bears that out. What the lawmakers managed to accomplish fails to live up to the hype.

Existing law requires elected officials to disclose any gift worth more than $50, but puts no dollar limit on such gifts. Nor does current law limit gifts to family members.

The infamous Rolex watch on the wrist of the former governor was the perfect example of the law's inadequacy. Yes, it certainly exceeded the $50 limit, but the gift was given to Mrs. McDonnell by the family's wealthy benefactor, Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. She, in turn, gave the watch to her husband, thus skirting the law with remarkable ease.

The new law limits the value of such gifts to $250 a year, and requires the reporting of gifts given to family members. And so the issue of "tangible" gifts is dealt with, though there remains a dependence on the honesty of those involved. Would we have ever known about the Rolex if Mr. McDonnell hadn't been photographed wearing it, and someone hadn't wondered--where did he come up with that?

The gaping hole in the new legislation is its failure to deal with "intangibles," the gifts of transportation, meals, trips and event attendance that are lavished upon politicians by their friends and donors. Whether these gratuities win any sort of legislative favoritism or other insider advantage is not the point. The appearance of political misbehavior can be just as damning as blatant wrongdoing. Deep down, credibility has to account for something.

Gov. McAuliffe acknowledged the bill's shortcomings but signed it anyway. He figures it's a step in the right direction, and besides, he's got the problem of a budget impasse and a throng of ornery lawmakers to deal with.

One wonders, though, if the governor has taken any of these ethical concerns about the undo influence of money on politics to heart. He was offering a private audience with anyone who comes through with a PAC donation of, say, $50,000, then backed away from the plan when it become public knowledge. It would have been legal, and has been commonplace for decades. But it's no more palatable than President Clinton renting the White House's Lincoln bedroom for a night's stay in exchange for a healthy donation.

Yes, Virginia lawmakers took a few small steps toward ethical righteousness, but as long as they make the destination so hard to pin down, people will wonder if they'll ever actually find their way there.