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Peter’s Take: Virginia Flunks Ethics Reform

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotOne of the five most revealing stories of 2013 was the ethics scandal that engulfed the administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wannabe successor Ken Cuccinelli. In the wake of that scandal, there were high hopes that Virginia would pass meaningful ethics reform in 2014. Sadly, Virginia flunked this opportunity.

Virginia legislators from both parties are responsible for the toothless “ethics reform” legislation that did pass in 2014. Their legislation “tightens conflict of interest rules on themselves just enough to say they did something to clean up Virginia’s soiled reputation.”

What did they do? Why did it do nothing to clean up Virginia’s soiled reputation?

The ethics legislation that passed this year imposes a $250 cap on gifts to Virginia legislators. Sounds good, right? Wrong. The $250 cap applies only to gifts made by registered lobbyists. It does not apply to gifts made directly by any individual or business that is not a registered lobbyist. Thus, the kinds of gifts made to McDonnell and Cuccinelli by disgraced businessman Jonnie Williams (e.g., shopping sprees to New York, Rolex watches, reimbursement for weddings of legislators’ children) are all permitted under the new ethics legislation just as they were before.

In fact, an early analysis of this legislation by ProgressVA showed that if it had been in effect in 2012, it would have prohibited NONE of the 756 gifts made to Virginia’s legislators in that year.

This legislation also “substitutes window-dressing for muscular enforcement by establishing an ‘advisory’ state ethics panel — with no staff or budget — instead of a commission with the resources and authority to investigate alleged violations.”

What role did Gov. Terry McAuliffe play regarding ethics reform this session? Where he had the unilateral power to do it, he put in place a strong ethics reform package for himself, his staff, and state agencies. This executive branch reform package establishes a $100 gift cap without the ridiculous loopholes in the bill passed by the legislature.

Some have criticized Gov. McAuliffe for failing to exercise his power to propose substantive amendments to the ethics bill passed by the legislature. That criticism is unfair. Given the huge bi-partisan support for this legislation, there was no reasonable prospect that the governor could have obtained any significant substantive changes in it.

Conclusion

The legislature thoroughly humiliated itself by what it did. The governor could serve no constructive purpose by heaping further humiliation on top of that.

For this “reform,” the Virginia legislature deserves a bi-partisan grade of “F.”

Give Terry McAuliffe a “B+.”

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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