Thursday, January 16, 2014

Virginia's Shame is About Over: Giftgate: Giftgate

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD | Posted: Friday, January 10, 2014 6:00 am 


In his final State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session of the General Assembly, Gov. Bob McDonnell apologized once again for the shame and embarrassment he and his family brought upon Virginia as a result of Giftgate.

Fine. Thank you very much. Now move on, sir. As of Saturday’s inauguration of his successor, we’re done with him.

Apologies for unethical, if perhaps not illegal, behavior ring a bit hollow when they’re dragged out of anyone, much less a governor, with the threat of a federal corruption probe hanging over his head. So pardon us, Gov. McDonnell, if we view your umpteenth apology with a tad bit of cynicism, especially as the apologies started to flow only as a federal indictment appeared more a possibility.

The largesse of former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr. to the commonwealth’s First Family is sickening in its detail: Rolex watches, $15,000 shopping trips to swanky New York City boutiques, loans, paying for wedding receptions ... . The list just goes on and on.

And all of it legal under Virginia law, if properly reported by the recipients.

Virginia has rather arrogantly seen its politicians — we prefer to call them “public servants” — as above the money-grubbing and begging so common in “lesser” states such as North Carolina or New Jersey. Gentleman (and, more recently, ladies) just don’t behave in such a common manner.

Well, now we sadly know differently. Given the chance, along with some of the weakest ethics and public disclosure laws in the nation, Virginia politicians are no different than any other state’s.

Which brings us to the possible silver lining of this entire tawdry affair: the likelihood that legislators will reform and toughen Virginia’s notoriously weak disclosure and gift laws.

The centerpiece is a $250 limit on the value of gifts from lobbyists and others to lawmakers, state officials and their immediate families. Every recipient would be required to disclose such gifts; no exemptions for family members. And would-be recipients would be barred from “begging” for gifts, as first lady Maureen McDonnell did when she asked Star Scientific’s Williams to purchase a specially engraved Rolex for her husband.

Do the proposed reforms go far enough? Are they as strict as they could be? Absolutely not.

Lawmakers and other state officials could still accept trips to France to view decommissioned uranium mines, as several legislators did a couple of years ago, traveling on Virginia Uranium Inc.’s tab.

Elected officials could still use their campaign accounts to pay for everyday personal expenses, while a rather toothless ethics commission would be created.
Still, it’s a start. We wish there were a total ban on any and all gifts to elected and appointed officials, but that’s a fight for another day. For now, this is a major achievement. For Virginia, anyway.