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Peter’s Take: Virginia Needs Effective 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

Peter RousselotLast September, Gov. Terry McAuliffe relaunched an effort to enact effective ethics reform. He appointed a bipartisan commission charged with making recommendations.

As we enter the last weeks of the 2015 legislative session, some progress has been made. But, one key reform — the establishment of a truly independent ethics commission with teeth — appears to be dead. That’s a shame.

Virginia’s very weak ethics laws have led to a culture of corruption in Richmond — including the recent McDonnell and Puckett scandals. The corruption has tainted both Republicans and Democrats.

Some improvements — now in the legislative pipeline — would cap gifts to legislators and their immediate family members at $100 (rather than the current $250). These pending bills also would close the notorious loophole allowing unlimited “intangible gifts” like vacations and event tickets.

But, one of the critical recommendations that came from McAuliffe’s bipartisan commission was the recommendation to create a new, independent Ethics Review Commission with teeth, including subpoena and enforcement power. Setting up a permanent ethics commission with power to interpret and enforce ethics and anti-corruption laws is critical.

Virginia needs such a new commission with the:

  • resources to conduct investigations,
  • power to assess fines for violations, and
  • authority to make referrals to the attorney general or other prosecutors.

Regrettably, significant disagreement about the need for this type of strong ethics commission has led to the omission of such a provision from legislation adopted by both the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates. They appear to have been swayed by statements like this one from Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah):

“I think that’s a terrible idea, and I don’t think that either party wants to set up a framework where people can start and stop political vendettas through that process.”

In light of the persistent ethical problems in Richmond, the truly terrible idea is to omit this provision from the legislation.

A large majority of other states, including Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania have permanent ethics commissions. In Massachusetts, for example, the Ethics Commission can impose the following penalties:

  • a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation of the conflict of interest law or the financial disclosure law, and
  • a maximum civil penalty of $25,000 for bribery.

By carefully studying the different ethics commission models established in these and other states, Virginia legislators ought to be able to find a model that combines effective enforcement power with safeguards against partisan abuse.

It’s a big mistake for legislators to leave Richmond this year without passing a comprehensive ethics reform package that includes a strong ethics commission.

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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