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Editorial: Some Limits, More Disclosure

Virginia does not benefit from elected officials being awash in cash donations and gifts.

It seems prescient now.

Virginia’s “corruption risk report card” in March 2012 ranked the state 47 out of 50, with an overall grade of “F.” That’s “F” for failing, mostly because Virginia is one of four states that place no limits on political contributions at all.

Virginia got a failing grade for vulnerability to corruption. Corruption in the commonwealth is probably not any more rampant than voter fraud, as we said last year. But in terms of practices that could undermine trust, Virginia has vast room for improvement.

It turns out that unlimited contributions and gifts with some reporting loopholes is not good for government, not good for the public, especially not good for elected officials as recent news about state elected officials and gifts well demonstrate. It could be better for businesses to have some limits as well.

The National Conference of State Legislatures www.ncsl.org summarizes how states handle contributions: “States commonly place limits on contributions to candidates from various sources, and also on contributions to political action committees and political parties. Just four states — Missouri, Oregon, Utah and Virginia — place no limits on contributions at all. Another seven states — Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas — have minimal contribution limits. These states limit or prohibit contributions by corporations and unions to candidates, but leave contributions from all other sources unlimited. In the remaining 39 states, contributions to candidates from individuals, political parties, PACs, corporations and unions are typically limited or, in the case of corporations and unions, prohibited outright.”

In Maryland, individuals can give $4,000 to any one candidate and $10,000 total in a four-year election cycle. You don’t have corporations and CEOs giving $100,000 and more in an election cycle.

From 2009-2013, Dominion has made $2,838,506 in political contributions to candidates and committees, 58 percent of it to Republicans, 39 percent to Democrats, according to the Virginia Public Access Project www.vpap.org.

In 2012, Pepco donated $2,000 to Friends of Martin O’Malley, Maryland’s governor, $10,000 to the state Democratic committee and $5,000 to the state Republican committee.

In 2013, Pepco’s total contributions currently reported are $2,000.

In 2013, Dominion Resources’ total contributions currently reported are $450,000.

In 2010, Pepco donated $4,000 each to Friends of O’Malley and Friends of Anthony Brown, his running mate. In 2008, Pepco donated $10,000 to state Democratic committee and $10,000 to the state Republican committee. (Pepco contributions are according to the Maryland Campaign Finance Reporting System.)

Dominion donated $52,500 to McDonnell’s campaign and another $50,000 to his inaugural committee. Dominion also gave $80,000 to the campaign of state Sen. Dick Saslaw (D), $26,500 to Ken Plum (D) for delegate, $25,000 to Mark Sickles (D) for delegate, $18,500 to Toddy Puller (D) for Senate, $17,000 to Mark Herring (D) for Senate, $14,157 to Tim Hugo (R) for delegate, $12,000 to Tom Rust (R) for delegate and $11,000 to Janet Howell (D) for Senate, just to cover some of the larger, local contributions.

Does it matter? Given the history of power outages, it’s unlikely anyone would want to trade service from Dominion for service from Pepco.

Gifts are another question. In Virginia, even if an official does violate the very limited rules on gifts, the code states that “Violations of this subdivision shall not be subject to criminal law penalties.”

Call us naive, but we would have bet that neither Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli nor Gov. Bob McDonnell would be susceptible to taking gifts under dubious circumstances, yet both are in the news for having failed to report gifts totaling tens of thousands of dollars. McDonnell says disclosure of gifts to his immediate family members are not required. Cuccinelli says he forgot about some gifts he received.

The State Integrity Investigation is "designed to expose practices that undermine trust in state capitols — and spotlight the states that are doing things right." See http://www.stateintegrity.org/virginia.

Virginia’s access to information on campaign finance is overshadowed by "lax oversight rules, weak consumer representation protections, dwindling capitol press corps and coziness between political and economic elites. ... Meanwhile, the few ethics and disclosure requirements that do exist tend to be flawed, limited or fraught with exemptions and qualifications," according to the report.