New Ethics for Virginia, Sort of

imagesIn a move that surprised exactly no one, Virginia state legislators have formed a tentative agreement to pass ethic regulations that go a little beyond ‘whatever, dude.’

To wit, they’ve decided that gifts over $250 to themselves or a family member must be announced, and limited if from a party with ‘business’ before the state. They’ve also agreed that there should be biannual rather than annual disclosure requirements for lawmakers and lobbyists. They’ve surmised that it might be a good idea to bone up on ethics training, especially for the new lawmakers, because, naturally, the veterans were never a problem … (just ask outgoing Governor Bob McDonnell). Actually, to be fair, they did offer a refresher course to ‘veterans’ in the event that they forgot whatever rules they weren’t following in the first place. They also decided to create an ethics commission that could exclaim: ‘tut, tut!’ at opportune moments.

Excellent work, gentlemen and sufficient perhaps to provide a cloak of respectability for the next few months. But, let’s face it, not much of substance. Not that I object, mind you. I’m happy to see Virginia move a notch or two up from its current position as the 44th most corrupt state in the Union. Progress! A new slogan comes to mind: “We’re the 41st most corrupt state in the Union, but we try harder!”

Alas, as many suspected the new ethical ‘rules’ that the General Assembly has on offer are hardly exhaustive.

For example, the limits on gifts are only for those individuals with ‘business’ before the state. Given the contours of the recent scandal this is easy to understand, but why not just set a limit and be done with it? Every other state in the Union with the exception of Virginia and three other states curtail the amount of money that can be funneled directly to a politician and/or his family. State Senator J. Chapman Peterson offered a bill that would set a hard limit of $2000. But that didn’t make the negotiation round for some reason.

While we’re at it, twenty-two states simply ban corporations from giving to political campaigns, period. Why can’t Virginia be one of them?

And, of course, we have to ask, will that ‘business before the state’ clause apply to corporate entities?

ProgressVA reported in January 2012 that the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wrote more than 50 bills introduced in the Virginia legislature in recent years. ALEC, which is funded by Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart Stores, Koch Industries, and other wealthy corporations, writes model legislation of interest to its funders that sympathetic lawmakers have introduced in many states. In Virginia, dozens of lawmakers are members of the group or have attended its legislative conferences at a cost to the state of more than $200,000 since 2001. Its drafts provided the basis for Virginia’s legal challenge to the Obama administration’s health care reforms, a bill requiring voters to show identification at the polls, and a bill prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. House Speaker William Howell was ALEC’s national chairman in 2009 and remains on ALEC’s “national leadership team.”

Will these new ethic ‘rules’ apply to money spent at ALEC gatherings…or funds provided by corporations that support ALEC?

As long as we’re asking questions, why is Virginia only one of two states (South Carolina is the other) where the part-time legislators handpick the judges before whom many of them practice law? If not an ethical breach it certainly does allow one to indulge in speculation about possible improprieties.

Sins of omission aside, the Virginia General Assembly has actively sought to block transparency by exempting key institutions from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Foremost among these is the State Corporation Commission (SCC) which has been exempted from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. The SCC regulates businesses, utilities, financial institutions, insurance and railroads. This would be the single state agency where a FOIA is essential for understanding how corporations are influencing Virginia law. There’s nothing in the new ‘ethics compromise’ on making the SCC or other relevant agencies more transparent. Oh, and, by the way, the state’s 31,000 prison inmates also are forbidden to make requests under the FOIA.

To give some sense of what this means vis-a-vis transparency, when the Associated Press tested the effectiveness of the exemption in 2006 by sending reporters to each county to ask for public records, only 43 percent had success. The rest were told, variously, that the records would not be released or would cost thousands of dollars in fees. Maybe that’s the reason the Richmond Times-Dispatch is posting news of the ethics ‘compromise’ like it’s, well, news. They just haven’t been able to report on all the other threads that a few decent FOIA requests might reveal.

Says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, “Here’s an easy prediction — we’ll all be tut-tutting about how little the [Virginia] General Assembly did to reform the gift laws come March.” Sabato was actually pessimistic about an ethics compromise getting even this far. Last week he suggested in the Daily Press that “The chances of any limits on campaign donations are absolutely zero. File that one away in old number 13.”

He said Virginia officials and many voters tend to rely on the old assumption that Virginia’s politicians are more honest than politicians in other states.

No, really. He did say that. But then he qualified it, “Well, maybe. But how would we know? Look at the McDonnell situation. It took a whistleblower who felt he was being railroaded to expose a shocking arrangement that looked to most people like a wealthy businessman was buying the governor and first lady. How many other questionable activities have never seen the light of day? I’d guess many.”

“Many”? …Unfortunately, that sounds about right. But given the current structure of this compromise, we’ll still never know for sure.

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