New Ethics Law: Loophole Piled on Loophole


    I thoroughly enjoyed today’s column in the Roanoke Times by that curmudgeon, columnist Dan Casey, whose writing is the best thing about the Times these days. Casey discussed something that should be reported by every media outlet in the state as part of the coverage of the gross embarrassment that is the Bob and Maureen McDonnell trial. Casey decided to tackle one simple question: Could another state office holder cause another corrupt mess like this one, while supposedly following the new 2014 Virginia ethics law? His answer, after reading the entire text of the new “ethics law,” is a resounding, “Yes.” As Casey stated, the new law has so many loopholes that a person could “drive trucks of Rolexes right through them.”

    Item by item, Casey shows how all the stuff that Bob and Maureen McDonnell got as the “quid” part of their quid pro quo would be perfectly legal under the empty law the General Assembly had the gall to pass in the last session. For example:

    The $6,500 Rolex watch? While the new law forbids tangible gifts worth more than $250, the limitation applies only to lobbyists or businesspeople doing business with the state. Jonnie Williams was neither at the time. He just wanted McDonnell to use the influence Bob and Maureen were happy to peddle to promote his dubious product, a health supplement made from tobacco.  There’s another loophole in the law for unlimited gifts from “personal friends,” so all Bob McDonnell would have had to do was to say that Williams was his buddy. (By the way, that was part of the defense at the trial. The catch there was the testimony of Williams that the whole relationship was strictly “business as usual.”)

    How about all of Maureen’s fancy clothes? The same gift-from-friend loophole applies here, one adding up to about $20,000 in her case. What about the $15,000 for wedding catering for daughter Cailin McDonnell? That is an “intangible” gift. Under the new law, there is no limit on such gifts to officials or their immediate family, so there would be no need for Cailin to report it because the law defines immediate family as only a spouse or child under 18 living at home. Cailin is an adult, so the gift is exempted from reporting. Plus, the catering is a legal twofer because Cailin could claim Williams was a “personal friend.” Oh, and all those family vacations worth thousands also could be just “personal friend” gifts under the new law.

    Next come the loopholes in the new ethics law that make those pesky, huge loans to Maureen and Bob still legal.

    Under the new law, the loan of $50,000 to Maureen would have to the reported as being from Jonnie Williams, but its value would be listed as $5,001 to $50,000, making it impossible for voters to gauge the importance of it. The $70,000 to McDonnell and his sister could well escape reporting altogether because it was made to a business partnership, not just to the governor.

    Finally, we come to the stock that the McDonnells bought and then sold in December of one year, only to repurchase the same stock in January of the next year to avoid reporting ownership. Conveniently, the new law makes people report stock owned at two different times in the same calendar year, thus it would still enable someone like McDonnell to continue to hide a stock purchase by using the same dodge he did.

    Casey’s conclusion is that the legislature has done nothing to insure that some future office holder couldn’t do just what Bob and Maureen McDonnell did. Indeed, I believe the new ethics law is simply another scam perpetrated by politicians who evidently worked very diligently to make sure that none of them would have to give up any of the perks that people shower on them when trying to buy their offices.

    It’s “still the same old story” in the Old Dominion, but it’s not “a fight for love and glory.” It’s just another way Virginia can claim that we have no political corruption. Nothing that politicians do here if they are careful enough to follow the loopholes built into the ethics law is illegal.  Ipso facto, no matter what you do there is no crime. The status quo remains.

    • campaignman

      I was under the impression that the Governor quashed the new law so he could develop a better approach.  

      Was something passed over his veto?

    • campaignman

      The above link indicates that the Governor never signed the bill and it never passed into law.

    • campaignman
    • Elaine in Roanoke

      “… If the Governor does not act on a bill, it becomes law without his signature in seven days.”

      I don’t believe the governor vetoed the bill but I could be mistaken.

    • DJRippert

      I’m an independent voter.  I consider ethics, Medicaid expansion and the budget shortfall to be the three biggest issues at the state level.  Although Foust is running against Comstock at the national level the question of ethics is transcendent.  It seems to me that Virginia’s Democrats are much more willing to get tough on the ethics laws than Virginia’s Republicans.  Chap Petersen, in particular, has worked hard to get tighter ethics laws passed.  Where has Barbara Comstock been on this issue?  Holding hands with Bill “we don’t need no stinkin’ ethics laws” Howell?

      Why isn’t Foust pushing this issue with Comstock?

      In fairness, Foust will have to answer a good question.  While employed by SAIC Gerry Connolley voted to add a metro stop virtually in SAIC’s front yard in Tysons.  This made the SAIC property far more valuable.  Should he have recused himself from that vote?  Connelly’s action doesn’t rise to the level of Rolex watches but it’s a fair question to ask.

      If Foust wants to bring independent voters to his side he’ll have to do more than screech about what a bad person Barbara Comstock is.  That may help bring out the Democratic base but it won’t sway any independents.  Foust was a construction lawyer in Northern Virginia before becoming a supervisor.  His wife works at a medical practice that won’t take Medicaid patients.  He stupidly claimed that Barbara Comstock never held a real job.  Whether he knows it or not he isn’t winning a beauty contest with Barbara Comstock in the eyes of independents.  He may not be losing the beauty contest but he won’t get a lot of independent votes by just complaining about Barbara Comstock being “anti-woman”.

      Time for Foust to get to the issues and ethics is a good one.

      I’d also ask Comstock if she thinks that all future governors should follow McAuliffe’s path in voluntarily refusing to accept gifts over $25 – both for himself and for his immediate family.

      She would either have to support McAuliffe of place herself squarely in the gift glutton category.    

    • campaignman

      This morning’s Washington Post…

      McAuliffe signed an executive order the day he was sworn in, capping gifts to himself, his family and executive staff at $100. He later signed the ethics bill, calling it a good first step. But later, in the midst of a budget battle, he said the reforms were too weak and de-funded the ethics council that was supposed to collect and review financial filings.

      “The governor will be introducing legislation [for the 2015 session] that seeks to give Virginians the ethics laws they deserve,” said McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy.

      It will be interesting to see what Governor McAuliffe proposes and how hard he campaigns to the public about it.  Ethics is an issue people care about but few politicians believe will decide votes.

      For instance, had Bob McDonnell been able to run for re-election on the strength of his passage of the transportation bill, how many people would have voted against him based upon his taking so many expensive gifts from a businessman seeking favors?  Few, probably.

      On the other hand, had he no legislative legacy achievement, it might have been far more influential.

    • Elaine in Roanoke

      You point out the heart of what is terribly wrong with our representative democracy now. While people rail against unethical politicians and the money awash in politics and will tell pollsters they care greatly about ethics, few people vote accordingly. In fact, in most elections over half of us don’t even bother to vote.

      Part of the problem may be cynicism that arises when a politician will tell constituents that free vacations, huge campaign contributions, free rides on corporate jets, etc., don’t affect how they vote. Hogwash!