The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette, The Mt. Vernon Voice and Patch in the week of August 12, 2013.
Cleaning Up Virginia’s Ethics and Disclosure LawsMedia reports of Governor Bob McDonnell accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars of “gifts” and loans have provoked discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of Virginia’s ethics laws. Some have called for a special session of the state legislature.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is requesting a special session after he failed to report his only stock holding – Star Scientific – and $18,000 in gifts from Star Scientific head Jonnie Williams, including a lake house vacation and a catered Thanksgiving dinner. Another state delegate has echoed that call after his undisclosed trip to Taiwan was reported by the media.
We will be back in session in four months. While a special session to consider the Governor’s impeachment should be on the table, a special session four months before regular session focused on a series of interrelated complex new laws to be considered by a lame duck governor distracted by a federal criminal ethics investigation would not be productive. The General Assembly can thoroughly debate and decide appropriate ethics reforms in the normal 60-day session starting in January when the process can be more deliberative and the public can be involved more easily.
Here is what should be on the table for 2014:
First, the reporting requirement for gifts should apply to all state and local elected officials’ immediate family members, closely-held entities and their staff. Some of the specifics need to be carefully worked out, but the disclosure law should at least include individuals living in the same household as a state elected official and entities such as limited liability companies, limited partnerships and trusts in which the elected official or family member owns substantial interest or control.
Second, Virginia should have a financial cap on gifts to elected officials from all lobbyists or individuals and entities with business before the state or local governments. This cap should also extend to all state and local government employees. Anyone accepting a gift should be prohibited in participating in procurement or regulatory decisions.
Third, Virginia should limit all campaign contributions to $5,000 by any person or entity controlled by such person per campaign. Virginia’s unlimited campaign contributions are another side of the problem. No candidate or campaign should be able to accept a $100,000 contribution.
Fourth, disclosure laws should require disclosures of activity throughout an entire 12-month period and not just a “snapshot” of what exists on the date that the disclosure is filed. Plus, the actual details of investments and holdings should be disclosed. Elected officials and gubernatorial appointees should not be able to list real estate as a “Condo in Halifax County” or their brokerage account as “Fidelity Brokerage Account,” actual examples from current reports. They also should not be able to evade reporting by selling assets or paying off loans just before the reporting deadline.
Fifth, officials should not be allowed to use campaign funds for personal expenses such as gas, meals, and mobile phones. Campaign expenses should be used for true campaign expenses, not personal expenses.
Sixth, we must create an entity to be responsible for ethics policy, independent from the legislature and empowered to perform several functions. It must have the power to investigate and prosecute ethical violations, including alleged violations of campaign finance, political campaign and financial disclosure laws governing all elected officials. We should not rely on politically- elected Commonwealth’s Attorneys, our criminal prosecutors, to be put in the position of policing fellow partisan elected officials with virtually no support from law enforcement. There are too many conflicts of interest and political pressures in play.
The entity should also be empowered as the oversight body, provide advisory opinions to elected officials, recommend changes to state laws addressing ethics and financial disclosures, issue clarifying regulations and audit a portion of all disclosures filed by statewide officeholders, political action committees and elected officials’ campaign accounts. Filing fees should fund the commission’s activities.
With these changes, Virginia can start to move toward meaningful ethics reform and provide the transparency necessary to ensure accountability from our elected officials.
It is an honor to serve as your state delegate. If you have any feedback, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.