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Peter’s Take: Strengthen Virginia and Arlington Ethics Rules in 2021

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey was in the news last year after he accepted, and much later returned, a $10,000 campaign contribution from Metro’s largest labor union.

Dorsey’s original acceptance of this contribution violated Metro’s ethics rules, and led to Dorsey’s resignation from the Metro board.

Near year’s end, a federal bankruptcy trustee made a formal finding that “Dorsey overstated his debt obligations in ‘an act of overt misrepresentation.'” (Dorsey denies overt misrepresentation.)

Last year’s debate over Dorsey’s conduct did nothing to rectify severe weaknesses in Virginia’s and Arlington’s rules defining ethical behavior. Until these rules are strengthened, it’s inevitable that other situations like Dorsey’s will be repeated.

Unless the Dillon Rule is significantly relaxed, many of the major ethics improvements necessary must be enacted by Virginia. Nevertheless, there also is a lot more that Arlington County government should do now to demonstrate that ethical behavior is a high priority.

Virginia ethics reform

Virginia should broaden the scope, and more vigorously enforce, its conflict-of-interest law.

Virginia’s current Ethics Advisory Council lacks critical enforcement powers.

Virginia needs a new ethics body with:

  • resources to conduct investigations
  • power to assess substantial fines
  • authority to make referrals to the Virginia Attorney General and local Commonwealth’s Attorneys

Virginia should create a new, independent Ethics Review Commission with subpoena and enforcement powers like Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

The Massachusetts Ethics Commission can impose substantial civil penalties for violations of its conflict-of-interest laws.

Virginia campaign finance reform

Virginia is one of only 5 states with no campaign contribution limits. Virginia’s campaign finance laws were ranked 47th out of 50 in America, and received a grade of “F” from a state integrity investigation.  

We need to prioritize Virginia campaign finance reform. According to an NPR report:

Virginia’s campaign finance laws are far more permissive than most other states. They’re also lenient compared to the rules for running for U.S. Congress, where the Federal Election Commission limits individual contributions to $2,800 per candidate, per election. …Virginia requires only that candidates disclose the source of their funds.

Virginia should renew efforts to pass legislation similar to an unsuccessful bill introduced in the 2019 legislative session that would have prohibited “individuals and political action committees from making any single contribution, or any combination of contributions, that exceeds $10,000 to any one candidate for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, or the General Assembly in any one election cycle… .”

But wouldn’t such new Virginia contribution limits violate the U. S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision? Maybe not. In 2019, the Supreme Court declined to review a federal appeals court ruling upholding Montana’s campaign contribution limits on the grounds that those limits were a reasonable way to prevent corruption while still allowing candidates to raise enough money.

Arlington ethics reform

There are many things Arlington County government should do now to demonstrate its commitment to ethical behavior, particularly with regard to conflicts of interest. For example:

  • Make state ethics and campaign finance reform an Arlington legislative priority

Ethics and campaign finance reform are not even mentioned among dozens of items on Arlington’s legislative wish list for Virginia’s 2021 legislative session. The message: Arlington County government doesn’t care about ethics or campaign finance reform.

  • Increase the budget for Arlington’s Independent Auditor

The budget for Arlington’s Independent Auditor should be increased. The Independent Auditor needs qualified professional assistants to conduct substantially more audits annually to reduce the growing backlog of audits that are languishing unperformed (at pp. 10-13).

  • Develop and publish a comprehensive 2021 Arlington ethics manual

New York state has a model ethics code for municipalities. Michigan has an ethics handbook for local governments. Many Washington  local governments have developed and published their own ethics codes.

Using these many examples of municipal codes of ethics as points of reference, our County Board should transparently engage Arlington residents to help develop and publish a comprehensive 2021 Arlington ethics manual. Ask our residents: what ethical standards, particularly relating to conflicts of interest, should our elected officials meet?

Conclusion

Virginia and Arlington should each make strengthening ethics rules a top priority in 2021.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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