When Bob McDonnell fell, he fell hard, and his troubles centered pretty much entirely on gifts he received while in office. This affair prompted some close scrutiny of Virginia’s laughable ethics laws regarding such gifts to politicians, how they are tracked and what the potential penalties are for such largess. Now, we could have a discussion about how proper and effective such laws are – I find some of them to take a shotgun to kill a mosquito approach which needlessly ties up those serving in public office – but if you’re going to have such laws, make them effective.
Virginia, however, seems to be taking a different approach as outlined in an article this weekend by Robert McCartney.
The purported “ethics reform” bills sliding easily through the Virginia legislature include a curious, little-noticed provision. Under language approved by the Senate and House of Delegates, legislators would no longer be obliged to have their financial disclosure forms notarized.
Why is that important? It means lawmakers would be charged only with a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, for making a false statement about their investments or gifts they’ve received from lobbyists.
Well, isn’t that convenient.
Changing a potential felony for failure to disclose into a misdemeanor is rather like reducing your skyrocketing rape statistics by redefining it as disorderly conduct. But that’s not all of the goodies buried in the new legislation, assuming anyone takes the time to read the entire thing. The current provisions of the law which do require notarization of disclosures apply only to the legislature, not the Governor. (And you’ve got Terry McAuliffe now, so…)
Also in the bill is a cap of $250 on “tangible gifts.” This is problematic on a couple of levels. That’s a limit on a single gift, with no restrictions on cumulative giving. So you could, in theory, get 900 gifts worth $250 each. Also, the “tangible” part of it excludes all manner of trips to golf courses, casinos or what have you. As the article notes, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) tried to introduce an amendment which would require officials to justify the need for any trip costing more than $1,000. The amendment was shot down in the state senate by a voice vote.
And there’s one more glaring hole in the bill.
Finally, the bills would not require disclosure of gifts or loans to corporate entities in which a public official owned a stake.
That means there still would be no need for disclosure of payments similar to the large loans from Williams to a McDonnell family real estate venture.
“Somebody could give my law firm a car I could drive, and I wouldn’t have to report that,” said Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), the only delegate to vote against the bill.
This law is a joke, and if Terry McAuliffe signs it, that’s going to speak volumes about him. Of course, it’s a lesson a lot of us already knew.