Thursday, June 27, 2013

Corruption at the intersection of money and politics in Virginia

What do Virginia Republican and Democratic officeholders have in common? They love gifts! Nice gifts! Expensive gifts! Ah, the perks of political office in the Commonwealth. But, is it really a "commonwealth" when some birds, already feeding at the public trough, feel entitled to some extra luxury grist?

Between 2002 and 2012 Bob McDonnell gladly received gifts worth $303,550, including a $25,000 flight to Puerto Rico and a $19,000 luxury suite at a Redskins game. During the same period, his predecessor in the Executive Mansion, Tim Kaine, received $201,595 worth of gifts.

Politicians don't have to be a big dog Governor for Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy to visit his or her office with nice things: Current Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has accepted gifts valued at $69,363 (is he running for Governor hoping for a big shower of freebies?). Speaker of the House William Howell  topped the Cooch with $73,171. Even lesser known legislators like Senator Frank Wagner ($45,182) and Delegate Ken Plum ($40,679) get some damn nice stuff.

And just who are these Santas and Tooth Fairies lavishing gifts on politicians? Among the top 10 between 2002-12 are some familiar lobbying big dogs including: Dominion ($175,149), Virginia Uranium ($148,274) Virginia Trial Lawyers Association ($87,776), and American Legislative Exchange Council ($77,048).

As long as the gifts are reported on the annual financial filings it is perfectly legal under current Virginia law.

But, there are reports that Governor McDonnell was given a $6,500 Rolex by Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the CEO of a dietary supplement manufacturer who has been lobbying government officials. It is also alleged that Williams paid for a $15,000 Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree for McDonnell's wife and ponied up $15,000 for catering at McDonnell's daughter's wedding. If true, the Governor is covered in broken eggs and the yoke is on him.

While we should all be hopping mad if the allegations about Governor McDonnell's failure to report the watch and other gifts are true, we should totally outraged that with simple disclosure, all the gifts are perfectly fine by Virginia's ethics rules. The corrupting influence at the intersection of money and politics threatens the foundations of our democracy. It apparently isn't enough for donors to make huge contributions to campaigns, they also "buy" influence with nice personal perks for the people's representatives.

One branch of Virginia government, the courts, is taking ethics seriously (maybe too seriously) and has promulgated a rule that clerks offices can't accept any gifts without the approval of the judge. So a clerks office accepting a Christmas fruitcake or box of candy from a law firm gets far more scrutiny than the Governor pocketing a top tickets to a Redskins game or a $4,000 night-vision monocular from defense firm.

In the henhouse we affectionately call the "Commonwealth of Virginia" all birds are equal, but big birds are definitely more equal than little chicks employed by the state. I cry fowl... err... foul. It is past time for a constitutional amendment or legislation to end the wholesale buying of the people's government that takes place under both corrupt political parties.

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