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Virginia needs tougher ethics laws

Several years ago, while working for the FAA, I had purchased a small amount of General Electric stock. There was nothing too remarkable about this, but the FAA, in reviewing my annual statement of financial interests, a requirement for many in the federal government, said I had to sell it. I didn’t handle anything remotely connected with General Electric, but corporately the agency did, and so I had to sell the stock. That’s how tight many of the conflict of interest rules are at the federal level. Also, I was strictly prohibited from accepting any gifts, and this included trinkets or other giveaways (usually found at trade shows) worth more than a small amount. And meals, save perhaps for coffee, and that was sometimes a matter of concern, were out of the question. 

However, in Virginia, if you’re a member of the legislature, or the governor, or any other statewide elected official, there are, for all practical purposes, no rules. But, there should be.

If there had been rules on personal gifts and conflict of interest, then perhaps Bob McDonnell wouldn’t have become the first Governor in the history of the Commonwealth to be indicted. McDonnell is accused of accepting gifts from Star Scientific owner Jonnie Williams in return for favors. McDonnell’s defense strikes to the heart of what’s wrong with the current ethics rules in Virginia. He maintains that he did nothing illegal in accepting the gifts, as there are virtually no rules against doing so, and that there were no favors returned. The validity of that argument and whether the former governor and his wife actively tried to cover up this arrangement is going to be decided in the courts. But, Virginia, and specifically the General Assembly, can do something right now.  

Gifts, which include everything from trips, use of private aircraft and meals, are commonplace in Richmond. The executive branch, as we’ve seen, as well as delegates and senators are used to this sort of thing. But, it’s not good government. It allows for a level of influence by private interests that’s outside the public view. Most legislatures in the country have some of kind of code of ethics that limits gift giving and at the very least, requires regular reporting. In addition, many state legislative bodies have ethics commissions with the power to investigate and rule on ethics violations. However, Virginia’s ethics rules are lax, reporting requirements are few, and as the result, there isn’t much transparency. According to the State Integrity Investigation (a public interest group) report that evaluated ethics laws across the nation, Virginia ranks a disturbing 47th place when it comes to its ethics rules.   

There are a number of proposals being considered for improving ethics rules and their enforcement. Most aren’t particularly strong. One, for example, requires more stringent reporting and establishes an ethics advisory panel. That’s not robust enough. If ethics reform in Virginia is going to mean anything, there will have to be a limit on in-kind gifts, not just from lobbyists, but in general, and an ethics commission with enforcement authority. If this happens, and ethics rules have some power, then maybe we’ll be on the way to removing some of the tarnish from Virginia’s reputation for clean government.
—Reach David Kerr at
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