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Commentary: McDonnell Sets a New Low

—In Virginia, Who Cares?

The daily discoveries of more unethical and corrupt behavior by Governor Bob McDonnell continue to pile up. Most recent are the two grant “loans” to Bob and wife Maureen, each for more than what the average Virginian earns in a year, a Rolex for Bob, a New York fashion shopping spree for Maureen and gifts for two daughters’ weddings. These gifts are all from a wealthy donor involved in million-dollar-litigation with Virginia who is getting first family promotion of his diet supplement business to boost stock prices. All in all, the total undisclosed cash, loans, lodging, gifts, etc. in McDonnell’s enrichment scheme is estimated at $270,000 … so far.

You’d think the scale of the outrage in the governor’s mansion would result in the head guy being frog-marched out the door and off to prison. Not likely! I doubt that all the efforts of the grand jury and the FBI investigators will deliver us this justice. Governor Bob’s counterparts in Washington, D.C. and Prince George’s County are doing time, in some cases for lesser violations of the public trust than McDonnell’s. But, don’t count on McDonnell getting such just desserts.

Governor Bob is slick, and Virginia legislators of both parties have long assured that Virginia laws governing gifts and campaign contributions are among the most lax in the U.S. No sharp edges or enforcement and punishment provisions for raking in gifts and campaign cash, regardless of conflicts of interest with their roles as “public servants.” In Virginia, the public interest comes in a distant second to personal interest. But, most legislators satisfy themselves with more modest gift hauls, and none rival McDonnell’s.

The best that one might hope for out of this outrage in Richmond is that there will be such an uproar that our Virginia delegates and senators will be shamed into enacting new law, like that proposed by Senator Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor. Northam would bar any gifts over $100 to legislators and other elected officials, and his proposal includes an investigative body with enforcement powers. Thus far, however, Northam is fighting a lonely battle for reform.

Republicans’ strongest language to date for Governor Bob’s despicable behavior referred to it as a regrettable “distraction” from Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign to replace him—Cuccinelli also takes money from McDonnell’s benefactor. After all, among Republicans, McDonnell’s behavior could simply be seen as making the best of profit opportunities, the centerpiece of party ideology.

But, where are the Democrats? Other than Senators Chap Petersen and Barbara Favola, and Delegate Scott Surovell, who have called for McDonnell’s resignation but not for reform to bar such behavior, Democrats are sadly silent. Our own Delegate Ken Plum and Senator Janet Howell have told me recently they would support a law barring gifts over $100, but they had not gone public saying so. Both have a history of taking gifts worth more than $100 from special interest groups, as do many other Democrats.

The right thing to do, both morally and ethically, is clear. No gifts, no how! Why are Democrats refusing to step up and take the obvious high ground by: 1) going gangbusters for corrective legislation; and, 2) vowing personally to forego any gifts even before such new legislation becomes a reality? We’re listening…