McDonnell cases highlight ethics battle in Virginia

McDonnell cases highlight ethics battle in Virginia

By Hastings Wyman –

Last Friday, US District Judge James Spencer sentenced former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell to a year and a day in prison on corruption charges. In January, former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) was sentenced to a two-year prison term, scheduled to begin on Feb. 9, but the US Court of Appeals ruled that he could remain free on bond pending a ruling on his appeal, which raised “a substantial question of law or fact.” The McDonnells were convicted of federal corruption charges in connection with receiving some $177,000 in loans and gifts from businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. in exchange for favors for him and his dietary supplement company.

The McDonnells’ convictions have had an impact, says Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, with lawmakers “much less willing to accept gifts.” Indeed, the Virginia Public Access Project has reported that gifts to lawmakers dropped 27% from 2013 to 2014. Sabato adds, “Most legislators are honest, but there are some in both parties you couldn’t put on their honor … The standards are set by peer-pressure.”

In response to the McDonnells’ convictions and the public attention that ensued, the House of Delegates and state Senators last week tightened existing law to limit legal gifts to lawmakers to $100. They also eliminated an exception that had allowed “intangible gifts” of free travel and entertainment. But lawmakers failed to enact a key proposal supported by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D): Creation of an independent ethics commission with the power to investigate alleged violations.

Division over the adequacy of the new ethics laws has been largely partisan. “I think this bill is pretty tight, pretty strong,” said House Speaker Bill Howell (R), reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch, while Del. Scott Surovell, chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said, “We just built a bigger bucket to bail out a sinking ship, but we haven’t plugged the hole.”  Surovell added that he could write a check to himself for $5,000 on his campaign fund, report it as yard signs, and “Nobody would ever catch me unless somebody blew a whistle on me.”

After final passage, the bill will go to McAuliffe; he is expected to send it back with amendments, “which will be deep-sixed,” says Sabato.  Indeed, some lawmakers are upset with the more restrictive measures that they have already passed this session.

A survey of Virginia voters in late January by Christopher Newport University found that 62% approved of the two-year sentence for former Gov. McDonnell. By 64% to 34% voters believe the state’s political culture is somewhat or mostly dishonest, and 85% support an independent ethics commission with the power to investigate alleged violations.  “The public is very sour on our elected officials…,” Dr. Quentin Kidd, director of the survey, said in a statement. “Clearly the idea that Virginia has an exceptionally ethical and honest political culture is a figment of the imagination. The public simply doesn’t buy it.”

Even though public opinion is solidly on the side of tougher standards, especially the independent commission with enforcement powers, don’t look for voters to exert much pressure on lawmakers. For starters, even though all 140 seats in the legislature are up for election this November, Sabato estimates no more than 25 are competitive.

Moreover, “People don’t pay close attention,” adds Sabato. “The headline will read, ‘Legislature tightens ethics bill,’ but few will read down to the fine print” and discover that the new law includes no enforcement mechanism.

Stay tuned.