Recommendations Made for Reform of Virginia’s Ethics Laws

January 13, 2014

The latest issue of the Virginia News Letter, published by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, offers five broad recommendations for reforming the state’s ethics rules for public officials.

The article, written by Christopher Newport University political science professor Quentin Kidd and Meyrem Baer, a CNU undergraduate from Warrenton who is researching government ethics, urges the General Assembly, now in session, to consider the recommendations. In general, the recommendations impose much tougher standards than those now being discussed in the 2014 session of the General Assembly.

“Virginia rightly prides itself as a national leader in many areas,” the authors write. “Yet, despite the commonwealth’s commitment to tradition and sense of moral exceptionalism, the corruption investigation that has engulfed Gov. Bob McDonnell’s last year in office has brought heightened attention to the ethics of public officials and exposed many problems.”

They note that in a recent study of all 50 states on the risk of corruption, conducted by the Center for Public Integrity in partnership with Global Integrity and Public Radio International, Virginia ranked 47th, with an overall grade of F. The Corruption Risk Report Card gave individual grades of F to the Old Dominion on public access to information, executive accountability, political financing, legislative accountability and ethics enforcement agencies, among others.

“Observers of Virginia politics worry that the lack of ethics oversight in the commonwealth is a recipe for a major scandal, especially as politics in the Old Dominion takes on a sharper partisan tone, given the state’s newly minted status as a highly competitive battleground,” Kidd and Baer

write. Looking at reforms implemented in other states, they list as key areas of concern for Virginia:

  • gifts to elected officials and family, and disclosure of those gifts;
  • how campaign contributions can be spent;
  • the lack of an independent ethics commission; and
  • the lack of limits on campaign contributions.

Following are their recommendations:

1. Improve What Is Already Good About Virginia’s Public Ethics Rules

Virginia’s reporting requirements are among the best in the nation, but the accessibility of information needs improving. While electronic filing is required of candidates for statewide office, it is not universally required of anyone having to file finance reports. Campaigns must report expenses within 24 hours, as should anyone or any organization making contributions to candidates or campaigns. This would go a long way toward improving the accessibility issue and would make it much easier for citizens to connect dots between contributors, candidates and causes.

2. Create a Statewide Ethics Commission

Virginia needs an independent ethics commission that is staffed and empowered to conduct independent investigations. An independent ethics commission should be the body that examines expense reports and reviews disclosure statements, conducts independent reviews, issues advisory opinions and provides general guidance on broad ethics issues. 

3. Clarify the Rules for Gifts and Consider Limits

The approach the state currently takes to gifts is the same as for campaign contributions in that there are no limits; instead, public officials must report any gifts to them personally that are worth more than $50. The most basic reform needed is that the umbrella for reporting needs to cover far more than the elected official personally, to include immediate family members and business interests. But, the General Assembly should also consider limits on gift amounts in general. With exceptions built in for gifts from family and for major life events, limiting the amount that a public official can take as a gift would help ensure public trust in the officeholder.

4. Clarify the Rules of Campaign Expenditures

As some states already do, Virginia should clarify how campaign money can be spent so that there is a much clearer separation between official or campaign expenses and personal expenses. If, as a Virginia State Board of Elections spokesperson has been quoted as saying, lawmakers

could probably get away with spending campaign money to send their children to college, then the law needs clarity.

5. Consider Limitations on Campaign Contributions

Finally, while it might appear as the most unlikely reform, imposing limitations on campaign contributions might be one of the most important reforms that the General Assembly should consider. A decade ago it was hard to find a campaign for Virginia Senate or the House of Delegates that spent more than $500,000. In the 2013 House of Delegates elections, one campaign spent more than $1 million, nine spent between $500,000 and $1 million, and 18 spent between $250,000 and $500,000. In the 2011 Virginia Senate elections, nine campaigns spent more than $1 million, 17 spent between $500,000 and $1 million, and 18 spent between $250,000 and $500,000. The cost of running for office in Virginia has skyrocketed in the last decades, and threatens to turn the commonwealth’s citizen legislature into one full of people who can either pay their way or who have had to spend an enormous amount of time raising money.

The Virginia News Letter is a University of Virginia research publication devoted to statewide public policy issues. It is published six to eight times a year, by the Cooper Center, which makes it available online and free of charge. Authors are drawn from experts in their fields, and topics cover a variety of issues. Each issue contains an in-depth article aimed at a general readership as well as state policymakers. John L. Knapp, senior economist and professor emeritus at the Cooper Center, edits the News Letter, which has been published continuously at U.Va. since 1924.



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