Del. David Englin Could Be Virginia Uranium’s Best Argument

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    As has been much-reported and discussed, a few weeks ago Virginia Uranium sponsored an all-expenses paid trip to France to lobby members of the Virginia General Assembly. The vast majority of legislators turned this trip down as unethical or improper, though it is a perfectly legal “gift” under Virginia state law. Even Delegate Dave “Abuser Fees” “DUI” Albo, who is widely thought of as a legislator with conflicts of interest declined to go on the trip, saying “politically speaking, I think it has the appearance of impropriety.”

    And it does have the appearance of impropriety. At around $10,000, it’s more than half the amount that Englin is paid to do his job as a state legislator ($17,640). So, they’re paying half as much as We the People are for him to do his job.

    At the Charlottesville Keep the Ban meeting, which I have previously written about on this site, representatives from Virginia League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and Virginia Conservation Network noted that Virginia Uranium loves lobbying this way because it allows elected officials to take their wives to be wined and dined in Paris and have a good time while seeing a non-functioning site, getting a very narrow view of the facts.

    I want to be accurate and note that Englin said “Despite what The Washington Post has reported, the three days in France were not a vacation. We did have one day and part of an afternoon to ourselves in Paris, but otherwise we were in briefings, meetings and site visits.” I don’t want to get too sidetracked over what we’re calling this trip, because that’s really not the point. I do want to be clear, though, that if myself and my spouse were flown to France all-expenses-paid and had a day and a half free in Paris, I would consider it a vacation even if I spent time in meetings. But let’s get past the fact that Virginia’s extremely lobbyist-friendly contribution and gift rules enable these ethical lapses and get to the implications of Englin’s going on the trip, and what it means for Virginia Uranium in their lobbying and strategy game trying to lift the ban during the General Assembly’s next session.

    Englin has attempted to defend himself fairly consistently by hiding behind his legislative record—in particular, “my record as a five-time League of Conservation Voters “Legislative Hero.” He brags, “With full knowledge that I am among its greatest skeptics, Virginia Uranium invited me on this trip because the company truly believes the facts are on its side.”

    What Englin is too naïve to understand is it is exactly that record that actually makes Englin’s going on the trip an even bigger victory for Virginia Uranium. Even if Englin votes, as he should, to keep the ban in place, he has still played right into Virginia Uranium’s messaging and legislative game. Instead of attacking uranium mining as a health, safety, and economic problem for Virginia with very few to no benefits, (including most of the benefits of mining only being seen out of state) he says “Some of the information we received in France conflicts with scientific studies on long-term toxicity previously cited by environmentalists, and I have asked both sides to respond to each other’s assertions as I work to sort out fact from fiction.”

    So now Virginia Uranium can say that a five-time League of Conservation Voters “Legislative Hero” is undecided if this practice should be allowed or not—and the fact that the information he was given “conflicts with scientific studies” apparently is something that matters (I was under the impression that science was generally a term to describe something done accurately through the scientific method, whereas lobbyists say whatever they're getting paid to). Virginia Uranium can now say that one of the biggest environmental advocates in the General Assembly is unsure on what is fact and what is fiction. This gives them a significant foothold in establishing that there is in fact a debate over whether a completely unsafe practice can be done safely.

    Lowell wrote a post on this site, asking the Democratic candidates in the 30th and 31st State Senate districts and the 49th House of Delegates District “whether they believe that accepting gifts like a $10,000, all-expense-paid trip to France by a uranium company with business before the General Assembly – is appropriate.” All those listed as responding in the post–Libby Garvey, Jaime Areizaga-Soto, Barbara Favola, Rob Krupika, Adam Ebbin, Alfonso Lopez, and Stephanie Clifford all responded that they would not have taken the trip. If you haven't read the quotes, it's really worth a click through on the link–most are at least uncomfortable with the impropriety and ethical implications of taking a trip (though some express this sentiment more strongly than others), and most also discuss the need for reform of Virginia's contribution and gift rules. None of these candidates would have given Virginia Uranium a leg up on their argument to overturn the ban by going on this trip.

    Either Englin is so corrupt that contrary to what he writes, his vote can be bought, or he has such a minute understanding of strategy that he doesn't see that he's just become one of Virginia Uranium's biggest assets in its argument to lift the ban. What a shame that even if Englin's vote is not for sale, by falling for and playing into Virginia Uranium's strategy, he is.

    • This reeks of impropriety, I’d be surprised if the Feds haven’t opened a file.

    • truthteller

      To me the State Senate race matters a lot more and the questionable tactics there have captured my attention. I respect your point of view, but respectfully dissent…

    • Jason

      David Englin is an effective and generally progressive legislator with whom I usually agree (except recently on redistricting).  As an advisory board member of the VA League of Conservation Voters (disclaimer: the remarks here are solely my own), I’ve been pleased to see him recieve just accolades for his work on the environment.  And it goes without saying that legislators should make every effort to be informed on important issues like the potential impacts of uranaium mining on public health and our environment.

      Nonetheless, accepting this trip from VA Uranium was a mistake.  Further, the Englin family’s vigorous defense of it is unfortunate and their attacks on activists (“whacktivists”??) who question its propriety are particularly over the top.  

      I point to the excerpted provisions of Virginia law below and ask simply whether a reasonable person considering the spirit, if not the letter, of these provisions, would have taken this trip.  

      http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bi

      § 30-103. Prohibited conduct.

      No legislator shall:

      1. Solicit or accept money or other thing of value for services performed within the scope of his official duties, except the compensation, expenses or other remuneration paid to him by the General Assembly. This prohibition shall not apply to the acceptance of special benefits which may be authorized by law;

      5. Accept any money, loan, gift, favor, service, or business or professional opportunity that reasonably tends to influence him in the performance of his official duties. This subdivision shall not apply to any political contribution actually used for political campaign or constituent service purposes and reported as required by Chapter 9.3 (§ 24.2-945 et seq.) of Title 24.2;

      10. Accept a gift from a person who has interests that may be substantially affected by the performance of the legislator’s official duties under circumstances where the timing and nature of the gift would cause a reasonable person to question the legislator’s impartiality in the matter affecting the donor. Violations of this subdivision shall not be subject to criminal law penalties; or

      11. Accept gifts from sources on a basis so frequent as to raise an appearance of the use of his public office for private gain. Violations of this subdivision shall not be subject to criminal law penalties.

      I have worked at the national level on exposing right-wing junkets for judges and other attempts by corporations and ideological groups to “indoctrinate” or otherwise influcence elected officials and judges on behalf of what is generally an anti-regulatory agenda.  See, e.g., http://www.communityrights.org…  No participant ever claims these trips unduly influence them, and so they continue.  Still there is obviously a reason why companies do this sort of thing.  Over time, these kinds of gifts can have an affect in influencing ideas and ultimately behavior.

      The provision of luxury accomodations in attractive locales for a legislator and his spouse(?) are nice perks unrelated to legitimate fact finding.  Why accept them? When wealthy interests with business before government come offering legislators free trips and other goodies, the smart thing to do to decline.

      That the trip may not violate the letter of the law is really no defense.  Appearances matter, too.  Given the Washington Post coverage and the reaction of other NoVa candidates and officials, it’s clear reasonable people and not just “whacktivists” believe the trip raises the appearance of impropriety.  That this point needs to be debated and defended is disappointing.