How quickly they forget.
It’s said that in politics a year is an eternity. What, then, is six years?
First, let’s review a history lesson looking back to 2013, a year politicians in Virginia would rather forget.
Bob McDonnell’s last year as governor of the commonwealth was as ignominious a fall from grace and power as any politician in modern Virginia history had experienced. It had only been a year before, in 2012, that Republican presidential nominee-to-be Mitt Romney was seriously considering McDonnell as his running mate against then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Even though the nod eventually went to Rep. Paul Ryan, McDonnell’s stock soared in value: This charismatic, work-across-the-aisle conservative was presidential timber.
Or so we thought at the time.
It turns out that a scandal of massive proportions — at least for Virginia — was bubbling just beneath the surface of the seemingly placid sea. Early in the new year, news broke that the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia was investigating the governor for political corruption and accepting bribes.
Jonnie Williams Sr., the founder of a vitamin supplement company whose product was made from tobacco, had wormed his way into the governor’s personal inner circle. He’d paid for catering the wedding of one of McDonnell’s daughters, given the governor and his sons golfing vacations and taken the governor’s wife on New York City shopping trips. He bought a Rolex watch for her to give her husband at Christmas, given the McDonnell family use of his Smith Mountain Lake mansion at Thanksgiving complete with use of his Lamborghini to drive back to Richmond — provided the cash-strapped governor with interest-free loans when the real estate market crashed in the Great Recession. Total value? More than $177,000.
At the same time, former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell became the No. 1 cheerleader for Williams’ supplement, hawking it in speeches and appearances as practically a medical miracle for its supposed anti-inflammatory powers, while her husband pressed medical researchers at public universities to study and back up the claims.
Almost immediately after McDonnell left office in January 2014, he and his wife were indicted on federal corruption charges and, in a federal trial later that year, convicted. Lawyers immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. On June 27, 2016, a unanimous court overturned McDonnell’s conviction, ruling that prosecutors stretched federal anti-corruption statutes too far in their effort to pursue the governor.
Giftgate, as the McDonnell scandal came to be known, shook Virginia’s political world to its core. The commonwealth had always had some of the most lax reporting laws in the country for gifts and the like to elected and appointed public officials. It was all part of the storied “Virginia Way,” the origin of which can be traced to George Wythe of Williamsburg, the nation’s first law professor and a Founding Father credited with creating the first training program for future political leaders. He emphasized civility, honor and integrity in public service. Today, the “Virginia Way” is still referenced, but, sadly, modern-day reality has made it more of a myth.
Political observers such as Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Public Service had long contended these lax rules were a ticking time bomb in the heart of Virginia politics, and Giftgate proved them right.
Prodded by Terry McAuliffe, McDonnell’s successor as governor, the General Assembly finally took up the challenge of writing gift and reporting laws with some teeth in them. The annual, total value of gifts to legislators and affected high-ranking appointed officials was lowered significantly to just $100, which had to be officially reported. Reporting and transparency regulations were significantly broadened, though some of the tougher oversight measures fell by the wayside. Still, when Gov. McAuliffe signed the measure into law in May 2015, it was rightly hailed as a major victory for good government advocates.
In the years since Giftgate broke and Assembly enacted tougher ethics laws, the value of gifts reported by members of the General Assembly tumbled. In 2013, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, the total value of gifts to lawmakers was $364,000; four years later in 2017, the value reported was a mere $77,000. Fear of public embarrassment and voter wrath seems to have worked miracles.
But in the 2018 reporting period, something odd occurred: The value of gifts reported by legislators almost doubled to $132,000. A Fairfax delegate visited South Korea on Seoul’s dime; three delegates traveled to Taiwan on that government’s tab; and a political magazine paid for another delegate to attend a conference in Great Britain.
All legal, all considered “official business.”
During Giftgate, we argued for one simple reform: an outright gift ban, with no exceptions. Legislators such as state Sen. Steve Newman of Lynchburg, who’s not accepted lobbyist gifts for more than 20 years, have proven such a ban would work.
Today, we repeat that call: No gifts, period. Legislators work for the people, not the lobbyists. Why is this such a difficult concept for them to grasp?