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Peter’s Take: Lessons From the McDonnell Verdict

by Peter Rousselot September 11, 2014 at 2:45 pm 0

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 RousselotLast week, a jury rendered its guilty verdict in the trial of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen. The jury found the McDonnells guilty of multiple violations of federal criminal law relating to public corruption.

The jury answered decisively the question I raised in an Aug. 7 column: a crush does NOT excuse a crime.

Most legal experts and political observers agree that Virginia’s state criminal laws on public corruption are so full of holes that the McDonnells could not have been successfully prosecuted under those state laws. Far from discouraging corrupt conduct, Virginia’s porous state laws enable it.

Any tightening of Virginia’s criminal laws on public corruption must be done at the state level. Under Virginia’s Dillon Rule,” individual localities like Arlington cannot adopt ordinances that conflict with current state criminal law. But, that does not mean that Arlington has no room to act on its own.

For example, earlier this year the Arlington School Board adopted a new gifts policy. Under the School Board’s new policy:

Employees may accept gifts valued at a total of $100.00 or less during a school year from any one student, individual, family or organization, including PTAs and Booster organizations. In no instance shall an employee accept a gift given for services performed within the scope of the employee’s duties or given with the intent to influence an employee’s actions. Any single gift valued at more than $100.00, or gifts totaling more than $100.00 from one giver during the course of a year, must be returned to the giver.

I commend the School Board for the positive example it set by taking this action. As I have written previously, now it’s time for the County Board to step up to the plate.

The current County Board Ethics Policy is much too vague and weak. On the subject of gifts, for example, the current County Board policy simply urges its employees to “ensure that no favors, gifts, gratuities or benefits are received for actions taken.” This provision simply urges County employees not to violate the toothless provisions of current Virginia state criminal law.

The County Board can and should do much better.

To get started, the County Board should follow the lead of the School Board and adopt a gifts policy. Emulating the School Board, the County Board ought to adopt a $100 limit on gifts.

It’s time for the County Board to send a strong signal that it is committed to the highest ethical standards.

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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