Virginia’s culture of entitlement continues to be a stumbling block to reasonable, long-overdue ethics reforms. The Washington Post quotes State Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, Jr. as feeling “insulted” by proposed reforms to limit gifts to $100 and to close the loophole that allows state legislators to accept recreational trips of unlimited value.
This arrogant attitude is reminiscent of the complaints from former Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful House Ways and Means Committee Dan Rostenkowski who dined regularly on the lobbyists’ dime. The powerful Rostenkowski routinely dismissed efforts to strengthen ethics rules, claiming he couldn’t be bought for the price of a meal. It is notable that Rostenkowski’s 30-plus years in office came to ignominious end when he was convicted of mail fraud – for abusing the privileges of his office – and sentenced to 17 months in jail.
It is time to recognize as outdated the notion that Virginia politics are somehow corruption-free and cleaner than all those other ethically-challenged states. Perhaps the reason this myth has survived for so long is that Virginia’s ethics, campaign finance and disclosure laws are so weak virtually no one could be convicted of violating anything.
A key step toward changing the laissez-faire culture in Richmond is to establish a state ethics commission and to give it teeth – meaning subpoena power and sufficient funding to investigate allegations of violations.
A new ethics law worth supporting should also close the loophole that allows unlimited “intangible” gifts to state officeholders, such as travel. It is unseemly and potentially corrupting for legislators to enact laws that favor a particular group or industry and to then permit those lawmakers to receive unlimited gifts from the beneficiaries of the legislation.
That used to be called bribery.
The biggest mistake the Virginia legislature could make at this point is to act as if the saga surrounding former Governor McDonnell was an isolated incident, instead of recognizing the underlying and persistent issues facing the state government and taking action to enact meaningful ethics reforms. Political corruption, or at least its appearance, has been the status quo in Richmond for too long. The shameful conduct of the McDonnell clan just pushed it too far. The family gave that corruption a face and the state a very public black eye. Throwing the McDonnells under the bus or hoping their convictions are overturned on appeal won’t make the problem disappear. It is long past time for those legislators not riding the gravy train to stand up and do what’s right for the Commonwealth.