COLUMBIA, SC — At this point, if you’re paying attention at all to politics in Virginia, you’ve heard at least some of the stunning revelations about undisclosed gifts that a wealthy, well-connected businessman has lavished on Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, and members of his family.
Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a nutritional supplement company called Star Scientific, has bestowed gifts amounting to nearly $150,000—including a Rolex watch, a Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree, a five-figure corporate payment, even wedding catering—on McDonnell and his family, as CNN’s Peter Hamby wrote in a solid state-of-play piece this week. State and federal investigators are now looking into the relationship. It’s a scandal, a Loudoun Times-Mirror reporter wrote on July 16, that “is not fading anytime soon.”
The standout investigative work on this story has come from The Washington Post, which first exposed the cozy relationship between the governor and his benefactor in March and has been dropping bombshells ever since. (The paper’s reporting is collected in an attractive archive here.) And almost from the time the first story appeared, reporters and commentators at the Post and elsewhere have put the scandal in the context of the commonwealth’s “notoriously” or “embarrassingly” relaxed ethics laws.
The headline on an April article by the Post’s Laura Vozzella, who along with colleague Rosalind S. Helderman has most of the key bylines on the McDonnell story, declared: “Virginia has one of nation’s most lax ethics laws for politicians.” Officeholders are allowed to accept “personal gifts of unlimited value,” Vozzella reported—McDonnell’s predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine, received an $18,000 Caribbean vacation from a supporter. And they don’t have to disclose gifts to immediate family members, like the catering bill Williams picked up for McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding.
In another strong April piece, editorial writer Shawn Day of The Virginian-Pilot observed that Virginia earned an “F” on last year’s State Integrity Investigation, an analysis of the risk for corruption published by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International. (Disclosure: I was the project’s reporter-researcher for South Carolina.) Day also noted an irony in the report that underscores just how weak ethics oversight is in the commonwealth:
Virginia’s score last year on the corruption risk report card was established through a grading rubric involving multiple categories. One of those concerned executive-branch accountability. Although it, too, drew a failing grade, the category held one of the commonwealth’s few bright spots: “In practice, the regulations governing gifts and hospitality offered to members of the executive branch are effective.” Virginia’s score: 100 percent.
The reporter’s notes offered this detail: “The only regulation governing gifts is that of disclosure, and there is no evidence to indicate that the executive branch is failing to disclose gifts. However, no one audits the disclosure forms or enforces the regulation.”
That detail is critical to understanding the weakness of Virginia’s system. As McDonnell’s ties to Star Scientific have shown, the system provides only part of the picture. There is nothing in law that prohibits an elected official’s spouse, or any other immediate relative, from reaping a windfall, whether through cash or goods or services, from a political donor. And there is nothing that requires a governor, or an attorney general or a lawmaker, to report such an arrangement.
For his part, McDonnell’s defense is that he’s just playing by the rules that are in place. Larry Sabato, who leads the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, succinctly pointed out why that’s not very satisfying. “For a moment, forget partisan politics,” he tweeted July 13. “Under VA’s very lax gift laws, our pols can be wholly owned subsidiaries of one or few rich.”
‘The Virginia Way’
So as the gift scandal has unfolded, the coverage has given readers a solid sense of how toothless Virginia’s ethics laws are, and how McDonnell has exploited them. But as an outside observer reading the coverage, I hadn’t been able to get a clear understanding of what exactly it is about the commonwealth that has allowed for such weak oversight and regulation. (Virginia is one of only a handful of states without a statewide ethics commission and one of even fewer in which campaign contributions are not capped, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.)
Recently, I caught up with Day of The Virginian-Pilot to talk about his April piece and the broader set of issues. The current state of affairs, he told me, largely has to do with attitude. In Richmond, Day says, the mindset is that the legislature is a genteel chamber where lawmakers conduct themselves above board, and therefore there is little reason to spend much time hashing out new ethics rules. And while reform proposals might sometimes get discussed, he says—as they were after a different scandal a few years ago—they’re rarely followed through with legislation.