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.