Virginia Uranium and the Englins

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    I would like to refocus the debate here over Del. David Englin’s decision to accept an all-expense-paid trip to France for himself and his spouse courtesy of Virginia Uranium onto the broader question of corporate lobbying and appearances of impropriety.

    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 receive 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 uranium mining on public health and our environment. Allegations of corruption or influence peddling are baseless.

    Nonetheless, Del. Englin and the other legislators who accepted this trip from VA Uranium made 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 influence 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 accommodations 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.  If nothing else, this trip remains an example of the undue influence and access that wealthy corporate interests have on legislation.  Most environmental groups cannot afford to treat legislators to similar trips to show a different perspective on issues like this.

    Given the Washington Post coverage (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/… and http://www.washingtonpost.com/… 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.