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Voters should demand ethics reforms, including a cap on gifts and a commission to enforce the laws.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli are lawyers surrounded by legal advisers. Yet they accepted lake house vacations and free catering services for a wedding and Thanksgiving dinner from a business executive and campaign donor. They failed to report those gifts, either because they employed legal loopholes as an excuse not to or conveniently forgot until the FBI began poking around asking awkward questions.
Constituents lacking in juris doctor degrees have no trouble understanding the conflict of interest their leaders allowed to fester. Indeed, most Virginians belong to professions or work for companies with explicit policies banning such graft.
Why is it only politicians feel they are exempt from rules of proper conduct? The answer is twofold. First, politicians wrote the commonwealth’s threadbare ethics laws to be as inconsequential as possible. Second, they have resisted calls for an independent watchdog with the power to enforce the rules.
Voters must demand better. Lawmakers should start with a $25 cap on all gifts other than meals, with stepped-up reporting requirements on the latter. They should also close a loophole that permits gifts to spouses and children or from personal friends without disclosure.
There are many other shortcomings in state law, but the key to a cleaner government is an independent ethics commission with the power to audit financial reports, monitor compliance, initiate investigations based on external complaints or its own findings, hold public hearings to review evidence and impose fines against those who violate the law.
Commission members should have the authority to hire their own staff and to recommend legislation strengthening existing laws against corruption. Members should be appointed by the governor and legislature and be removable only for misconduct or expiration of their terms. No elected officials, political candidates or lobbyists should serve on the commission, nor should their immediate family members or employees. It goes without saying that commission members would be required to file financial disclosures.
Forty-one states have ethics commissions because they recognize politicians cannot be trusted to police themselves. Virginians who may have believed their leaders were different should recognize by now that their trust has been misplaced.
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