RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers, elected leaders and those trying to get elected can't seem to embrace ethics and financial disclosure reform for public officials fast enough since troubling questions about unreported gifts to Gov. Bob McDonnell triggered federal and state criminal investigations.
According to news reports the past three months, Virginia's first family has received more than $140,000 worth of personal largesse courtesy of a deep-pockets political donor who heads a nutritional supplements company now the target of a federal securities probe and the subject of shareholder lawsuits.
And while McDonnell offers vague support for expanding the scope of Virginia's financial disclosure laws for public officials that are ranked consistently among the nation's poorest, he refuses to go beyond the letter of the law and detail gifts that The Washington Post and others have reported he received from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams.
After all, he argues, the law applies only to elected officeholders themselves, not to even his closest kin, and not even the officeholder himself if the giver is a dear old friend like Williams. Nor, he asserts, does that include a $70,000 loan from Williams to a company McDonnell and his sister own, or a $6,500 Rolex watch with the inscription "71st governor of Virginia" that Williams bought and gave to First Lady Maureen McDonnell to give to the governor as a gift.
Now, amid calls for McDonnell to come clean and even to resign, ethics reform is the summer's hot issue for candidates and legislators.
Candidates in the governor's race and other statewide and House of Delegates races this fall have weighed in with various proposals to limit gifts to public officials, to expand the reporting requirement to include swag and favors to their families or some combination of both.
Both major party nominees in the governor's race, however, have struggled with the issue of disclosure themselves.
Republican Ken Cuccinelli took more than $18,000 in gifts from Williams. That includes a $3,500 summer vacation and a $1,500 family Thanksgiving dinner at Williams' waterside mansion on Smith Mountain Lake. Those went undisclosed for years until he amended four years' worth of economic disclosure forms in April, saying the junkets had slipped his mind at the time.
But, unlike McDonnell, he did disclose them. And, unlike his opponent, Terry McAuliffe, Cuccinelli made public eight years' worth of state and federal income tax returns, complete with attached schedules and worksheets. The best the multimillionaire McAuliffe could do was three years' worth of two-page federal income tax summaries, which reveal his income but nothing about the source of his income.
There are questions aplenty that McAuliffe's complete returns could answer. Of particular interest is his role as chairman of GreenTech Automotive, an electric-car startup with a financing strategy of enticing large overseas investments, principally from China, under a federal program known as EB-5. It grants permanent U.S. visas for every $1 million of foreign capital, or $500,000 in economically struggling areas.
The Virginia legislators clamoring for greater transparency are the same ones who voted just a few months ago to exempt from public disclosure their own emails, written and sent on state accounts by themselves or their aides at taxpayer expense.
Those emails, obtainable under the Freedom of Information Act, are powerful tools for journalists and ordinary people for holding power accountable. It was official emails, obtained under FOIA by two Virginia newspapers, that revealed that former Del. Phil Hamilton had solicited a job from Old Dominion University in a teacher training center as he arranged state appropriations to fund it. The reports resulted in federal bribery and extortion convictions for Hamilton.
It's the same legislature that decided to block public disclosure of disaster evacuation plans for hospitals operating under a certificate of public need and records of holders of concealed-weapons permits.
Meanwhile, a bill that would have barred legislators from accepting appointments to boards of political action committees that hire lawyers died in a House committee on an unrecorded voice vote.
It was a legislative session that Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, characterized as disappointing.
Bill that exempted legislative email from FOIA: http://1.usa.gov/WRbx1b
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.
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