Part of an occasional series on ethics reform in Virginia.
“I’m offended by what’s happening in Richmond today,” said Del. Kenneth Plum at a Reston town hall recently. The veteran legislator is, like just about everyone else, in high dudgeon over the seamy underbelly of the gift culture that has been exposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell’s travails. (The Times-Dispatch will host a Public Square about cleaning up state government Oct. 8.)
But, like just about everyone else in state political circles, Plum laments a problem partly of his own making – and taking. Over the years, he has accepted plenty of swag: a trip to Turkey, tickets to Kings Dominion, dinners, shows, and more. Yet Plum has hauled in much less than other lawmakers. House Speaker Bill Howell, for instance, routinely benefits from the generosity of groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), law-enforcement associations, and the banking industry.
The gift economy in state politics is bipartisan and pervasive. In January, for instance, the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association gave gift baskets worth $202 to nearly 100 state lawmakers. A month later, Wawa gave every member of the General Assembly a cooler with books, a T-shirt, coffee cup, coffee and coupons. This might help explain why so many lawmakers have said so little about the governor’s involvement with, and failure to report gifts from, Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr. Nearly everyone lives in a glass house. As state Sen. Chap Petersen wrote in early August, “the political culture in Richmond . . . can be summed up in four simple words: Don’t Rock the Boat.”
It strains credulity to think even the most avaricious lawmaker would sell his vote for a coffee mug and some grounds. Gifts such as those likely get passed on to friends and family – or charity. On the other hand, it strains credulity to think a half-dozen tickets to a theme park or a free weekend at a trade association conference in a cozy resort would weigh nothing in the scales of a lawmaker’s deliberations. If nothing ever came of such beneficence, those with business before the state would not go to such lengths. They do. Last year, those lengths added up to just less than $16 million.
Some lawmakers now profess to be shocked by their own behavior and that of their colleagues, and the air is thick with talk of reforming the state’s ethics laws. An obvious first step would involve capping the value of gifts a public official may accept; $100 would seem fitting, if not generous. The precise dollar amount is less important than the bright line it draws.
Equally important, the General Assembly needs to impose tighter controls on how legislators can spend the money donated to their political campaigns. Those donations are unlimited, as are the ways candidates can use them. First lady Maureen McDonnell spent thousands from Bob McDonnell’s campaign war chest on clothes, which were then billed as expenses for events or travel. As Nikki Sheridan with the Virginia State Board of Elections told The Washington Post, pols who “wanted to use the money to send their kids to college . . . could probably do that,” too. Without any limits, this potentially turns campaign donations into a second source of income. That has to change.
Proposals such as these will, of course, rock the boat in Richmond. But that is better than letting the state’s reputation sink any further.