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Commentary: Past Time for Reform

The State Integrity Investigation, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, recently gave Virginia an F grade and a rank of 47th among the 50 states in its Corruption Risk Report Card (www.stateintegrity.org/virginia). Ironically, among the 14 categories related to state employee actions in procurement and internal auditing the grades were A because of the tough laws legislators have passed to keep the state workforce honest. In the categories that would most impact legislators themselves, like legislative accountability, political financing, lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement, the scores were F. My colleagues and I have put into place comprehensive laws that establish high standards and accountability to prevent corruption by state employees. The same rules have not been applied to elected officials. According to the State Integrity Investigation, Virginia is one of only nine states without a statewide ethics commission, one of four states without campaign finance limits, and one of 10 states that do not limit the value of personal gifts provided to elected officials.

Under current Virginia law, elected officials must publicly disclose any gifts with a value of more than $50 with the name of the giver and any political contribution of more than $100 with the name of the contributor. Recent media accounts of the state and federal investigations of Governor McDonnell indicate that he was able to skirt the current disclosure laws by not reporting gifts that went to his wife, daughters and a business he owns. While he may not have violated the specific letter of the law, he seems to have found ways to violate its spirit. It will be up to the criminal justice system to deal with his situation as well as that of current Attorney General Cuccinelli, who also failed to report some gifts.

For those elected officials who disclose gifts on their economic interest forms, the information is publicly available. The nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project (www.vpap.org) provides information online. Disclosure forms are not audited and the fear of adverse publicity helps ensure that elected officials do file the required forms.

Clearly the laws on gifts and campaign contributions must be changed. I have been part of efforts in the past to strengthen the laws, but the significant bills have been defeated in committee. With the current publicity drawing attention to the lax ethics laws, change may be easier to achieve. Disclosure of gifts to family members must be included as well as loans from non-financial institutions. An ethics commission made up of non-legislative members needs to be established. The concern is not Democratic or Republican. It is a concern of everyone who wants open and honest government. These issues must be on the agenda for the 2014 General Assembly session. It is past time to act!