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Virginia’s elite politicians have a centuries-old heritage of being fawned upon, a professor said.
Monday, July 22, 2013
RICHMOND — It takes major events sometimes to change Virginia law, and as serious as the scandals gripping Gov. Bob McDonnell are, they may be insufficient to radically alter Virginia public ethics laws, rated among America’s weakest.
Almost daily disclosures about Virginia’s first family accepting thousands of unreported dollars’ worth of gifts have ratcheted up the calls among legislators and statewide candidates for reform, but they disagree on how.
Democrats on November’s statewide ticket, including gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe, support some sort of ban on gifts to state officials. McAuliffe wants a ban on all gifts exceeding $100.
Republicans generally back more nuanced approaches, including limits, broadening disclosure requirements and timelier reporting.
GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli advocates a 10-day deadline for reporting gifts greater than $500, a simplified reporting form and ending the loophole through which gifts to officeholders’ families are exempt from disclosure. At Saturday’s gubernatorial debate with McAuliffe, Cuccinelli said he’d consider some form of cap or ban if he’s elected and the General Assembly enacts it.
But short of McDonnell being convicted as a result of a current federal investigation, it’s doubtful much will change, says James Madison University ethics law expert and political scientist Robert Roberts.
“Virginia has this rather elite political culture where the elites have always been somewhat immune from scrutiny,” he said. “The belief is that whatever they do is inherently correct for the state. They take things, gifts here and there, but it’s not like New Jersey, where it’s seen as inherently corrupt.”
The patrician political culture of Virginia and the public’s historical deference to power date virtually to the state’s founding, and also stem from its Southern mindset and 169 years of British colonial rule.
Officeholders tend to be accorded more benefit of the doubt than in many states, Roberts said, because of residual notions that they are elites who are somehow innately altruistic and above petty temptations. So far, sensational public corruption scandals have been few. Because of that, it takes more for constituents to clamor for change. Unless they do, Roberts said, there will be no wholesale change in public official disclosure laws.
“The elites won’t do that to themselves. Unless you get an indictment and a conviction, the public just sees this as more politics as usual,” Roberts said. “Public officials in Virginia are hoping this all just blows over. The elites want the system to remain the same.”
It’s not yet known how dire the scandal will get.
The governor’s family has received thousands of dollars from Star Scientific Inc. and its chief executive, Jonnie Williams. McDonnell has disclosed none of the gifts on his annual statements of economic interest, citing a state law that compels disclosure only of gifts directly to officeholders, not their families.
McDonnell defends his decision to withhold information about the gifts and denies that Williams or his company benefited in return. A report by an attorney appointed in the spring to probe Williams’ gifts to the first family affirms that Williams gained no financial benefit from the state.
Roberts argues that nothing short of the ethics laws that apply to federal workers and elected officials will actually work. Those rules already apply to tens of thousands of Virginians who have federal jobs, and implementing them should be simple enough.
They work, he said, because prohibitions on specific actions are easy for officials to understand. Unlike Virginia’s “character-based” laws that are little more than an honor system, the federal laws’ clarity also makes them easy to enforce.
“Seriously, Virginia is a laughingstock,” Roberts said. “We are an outlier with the rest of the country, and that’s evident in that you have a governor who can just do stuff like this. Look at the [former] governor of Illinois [Rod Blagojevich]. They sent him to prison for 15 years just for trying to take money.”
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