Virginia ethics laws: It seems that anything goes in the Old Dominion
But the perfectly legal, unlimited-cash culture that has long pervaded Virginia campaign giving has been on display right alongside McDonnell and his wife, Maureen — and it has renewed the question of whether that culture is broken and needs a fix.
Although it enjoyed a reputation for clean government, Virginia had some of the loosest ethics rules in the nation before the McDonnell scandal prompted reforms by the General Assembly this year. Even now, elected officials can accept campaign contributions of any size and unlimited “intangible gifts,” such as vacations and meals.
Some legislators expect the closely watched trial to inspire even tougher standards. Others say the case seems too extraordinary to form the basis for broad policy.
“I don’t think you can write a law that can cure what’s going on in the McDonnell trial,” said state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), expressing a common sentiment among state politicians who point to trial evidence of Maureen McDonnell’s possible mental illness and infatuation with Williams as unique circumstances to this case.
But there’s one thing the case has exposed: how subjective and mutable the rules are for who can give and how much.
For example, the legislature capped gifts at $250 this year. But gifts from “personal friends” remain unlimited. In 2013, McDonnell described Williams as a personal friend.
It doesn’t seem that Virginia really has any ethics rules. What seems even more amazing is the fact that Virginia lawmakers didn’t race in to shore up their loose-knit, obviously problematic non-ethical standards. It appears that current legislators wanted to keep the status quo of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”
Shame on them! Virginia is the laughing stock of the nation. As riveting as the daily drama that has unfolded about our former first couple is, it is also embarrassing that we Virginians have such loosy-goosy guidelines. All Virginia legislators should have strict guidelines about the gifts they receive. So should their spouses. Those who don’t want to adhere to the guidelines and yes, laws, should stay out of public office.
Fix what ails Virginia ethics. Funny, after hearing all the gory details of this trial, it still doesn’t seem that Bob McDonnell broke any Virginia laws. That speaks as poorly for my state it does the McDonnells. Any Virginia legislator can just do anything he or she wants and blame it on their spouse or their friends. Even the term “friend” seems to be a relative term.
Virginia legislators seem to want to hold on to the Virginia good-old-boy system at all costs, regardless of the embarrassment and obvious lack of ethical regulation. Those who oppose change are little better than pimps.