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.”