Live like Virginians

Published 10:01 am Saturday, September 20, 2014

With Virginia’s former governor and first lady preparing appeals to their convictions on multiple corruption charges, state legislators throughout the commonwealth are promising that this year they’ll take seriously the unmistakable public outcry for ethics reform in Richmond.

Virginians can hope this is a promise their legislators will keep. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that legislators will not keep the promise — or, at best, that they’ll offer only legislative platitudes to the problem of unaccountability. In fact, the lack of details they offer makes legislators’ promises of action sound pretty hollow to many Virginians.

Last year’s legislation established the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, bumped up the frequency of reporting requirements for public officials and lobbyists, and made some changes to the definition of “gifts.”

These were relatively minor changes. After reading weeks of testimony about how Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen used the influence of the governor’s office to broker more than $170,000 in luxury gifts and loans for themselves, Virginians want something much stronger when it comes to ethics legislation. They want to know that neither their governors nor their legislators will trade on the integrity of their elected office.

Virginia has now had one too many governors convicted of corruption. The list of legislators who have found themselves on the wrong side of ethics charges is, sadly, somewhat longer. Virginia deserves better.

What Virginia deserves is elected officials who do their jobs in Richmond for the benefit of the commonwealth and their particular districts, not for the benefit of themselves or their families. What Virginia deserves is legislators who are eager to be held accountable to their constituents, who do not chafe at the prospect of reporting gifts, trips, meals and the like, because they have absolutely nothing to hide.

What Virginia deserves is statesmen (and there’s a term we don’t often hear these days) who go out of their way to avoid unnecessary entanglements with lobbyists, rather than politicians who jostle for a spot at the bar during expensively catered cocktail parties.

If legislators are truly interested in giving their constituents what they deserve, perhaps they should start this year with an absolute moratorium on gifts, trips, loans and dinners from lobbyists. No more golf outings unless the delegate pays his own way. No more dinners unless the senator picks up his own check. No more trips to the Final Four unless the governor buys his own tickets.

Such measures might seem draconian inside the I-295 Beltway. Anywhere else in the commonwealth, though, they’d be called “life.” That’s how most Virginians live. They pay their own way. And Virginia deserves to expect its legislators to live like Virginians.