You would think that Virginia, the home of George Washington who is held up as the paragon of the ethical statesman, would rank as one of the most ethical, the most transparent, the most open states in the country. You would be wrong.
Earlier this month, the Coalition for Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for transparency and tracks integrity enforcement in the public and private sectors, released its annual ranking of the 50 states on ethics standards and enforcement. It’s come to be known as the Swamp Index, not a very pretty image but one that fittingly describes the muck the coalition is tracking.
Where, you may be wondering, on that list did the Old Dominion — the Mother of Presidents, the Mother of States and home of Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and George Mason — place? Well, hold on to your seats, Virginia was one of the seven states whose ethics enforcement structure is so nonexistent, weak and ineffective that the coalition couldn’t even assign a ranking to it.
Arkansas, Idaho, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming … and Virginia. How pathetic.
Four states — Arkansas, Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming — make no attempt to hide their lack of interest in ethics in government enforcement. According to C4I, as the coalition brands itself, these states don’t even have ethics regulations, much less an ethics enforcement agency. The other three states, of which Virginia is proudly one, attempt to paint a picture of a good, clean government, populated by proud, selfless public servants, in which ethical behavior is a given — their ethics regulations and enforcement agencies are merely for show, window dressing, a toothless tiger.
Our neighbor to the south, North Carolina, is ranked at the very bottom of the state C4I was able to calculate a score for and rank. Raleigh has a long track record going back to the mid-1900s of less than ethical politicians, one of the most notorious of whom was Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green, who beat a charge of attempted bribery in the early 1980s after an FBI probe of public corruption in the state.
One of the highest ranking states is also a neighbor of the Old Dominion — West Virginia. Yes, West Virginia, the butt of many a joke told by a haughty Virginia political grandee. The Mountain State ranks with California, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado and Massachusetts as one of the best states for ethics regulation and going after politicians who step over the line.
It’s not like Virginians haven’t been warned that the state’s ethics enforcement structure simply isn’t up to snuff. Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia and founder of the university’s Center for Politics, has warned for decades that the state’s lack of ethics standards and a true enforcement mechanism was a ticking time bomb at the heart of state politics.
But no one listened.
Even in late 2012 as what would come to be known as Giftgate began emerging in the news media, few elected leaders saw any problem that required their attention. So when details of the scandal swirling around then-Gov. Bob McDonnell emerged in early 2013, you would have thought it would have been a wake-up call.
At the center of Giftgate was a wealthy businessman whose company manufactured a dietary supplement, made from tobacco, that was a powerful anti-inflammatory, though there was no science to back up his claims. To market his product, Jonnie Williams Sr. opened up his wallet, his vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake and his Ferrari-packed garage to the governor and his family. Shopping trips to New York City for the governor’s wife. Expensive golfing outings at exclusive clubs for the governor and his sons. The wedding reception of the governor’s daughter paid for. Low-interest or no-interest loans to the family at the depths of the Great Recession.
And in return, the governor and first lady touting a “revolutionary,” “Made in Virginia” dietary supplement that was practically a medical cure-all.
Bob and Maureen McDonnell were convicted on a slate of corruption charges in a federal trial, though the U.S. Supreme Court would go on to overturn the convictions, ruling prosecutors were too “zealous” in interpreting federal anti-corruption laws.
Terry McAuliffe, McDonnell’s successor as governor, tried for his entire four-year term to get a strict package of ethics reforms through the General Assembly but failed. What ultimately emerged from the Assembly and was signed into law by Gov. McAuliffe was a mere political fig leaf. Gift and donation reporting rules with loopholes so large a tractor-trailer could drive through them. An ethics “advisory” panel whose advice could be ignored at will with no penalty. And any dream of an ethics enforcement agency that could actually sanction offenders? Well, that’s just blowin’ smoke.
Today, in 2019, six years after the McDonnells’ conviction in federal court, the ethics landscape in the Old Dominion is slowly sliding back to what passes for normal. Trips for legislators paid for by lobbyists and business interests. Gifts and donations on the rise, as memories of Giftgate recede.
But just you wait … we’ll fix it. After the next ethics scandal explodes in Richmond. And believe us, there will be another one. It’s just a matter of time.