Bolling: Virginia needs stronger ethics laws

Published 9:59 am Friday, October 10, 2014

by Bill Bolling

When my sons were growing up, there were certain lessons I tried to teach them — lessons I thought would serve them well in life. Chief among these lessons was this:

Life is about choices.

You make good choices and good things usually happen.

You make bad choices and bad things usually happen.

I’ve thought a lot about this in the past few weeks as I’ve reflected on the recent verdicts against Bob and Maureen McDonnell.

The McDonnells are dear friends, and I think Bob McDonnell was an outstanding governor. We’ve fought many political battles together, and it was a privilege to serve with him. He will always be my friend, and on a personal level I will do anything I can to help him and his family through this difficult time.

I also understand that the legal proceedings against the McDonnells are not over. While the jury has found them guilty, the nature of the case certainly warrants further review of some very complex legal questions by an appellate court.

But regardless of how this matter is ultimately resolved, one thing is clear — the McDonnells made some very bad choices that resulted in the charges that were filed against them by federal prosecutors; bad choices for which they have already paid a very high price.


Unfortunately, there is little we can do to guarantee that people — including elected officials — will always make good choices. We are all prone to make bad choices from time to time. That’s just human nature.

But there is something we can do about Virginia’s current ethics and gift-disclosure laws, which allowed a situation like this to occur. Virginia has some of the most lax ethics and gift-disclosure laws in the country, and the McDonnell situation exposed all of the weaknesses in these laws.

No elected official should be allowed to receive the type of gifts and personal loans that Johnnie Williams gave the McDonnells. Even if such gifts are given without the expectation of something in return, they project the appearance of impropriety. This is a situation that must be addressed.

Last year, when these issues first came to light, I called on the General Assembly to strengthen Virginia’s ethics and gift-disclosure laws and close the loopholes that obviously exist in these laws.

Unfortunately, the General Assembly failed to address these issues in a substantive way. The legislators merely nibbled around the edges. They did just enough to say they had done something, but the deficiencies that enabled a situation like the McDonnell case to arise still exist, and they must be corrected.


Fortunately, the General Assembly will have another opportunity to address this issue when they return to Richmond in January, and I hope they will seize that opportunity and make substantive changes to Virginia’s ethics and gift-disclosure laws.

On Sept. 25, Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointed a bipartisan commission to review Virginia’s ethics and gift-disclosure laws and make recommendations for how these laws can be improved. I was honored that the governor asked me to co-chair this commission, along with former Congressman Rick Boucher. I assure you that our commission will make a series of meaningful recommendations for the General Assembly to consider.

I am also encouraged that Sen. Tommy Norment, the majority leader in the State Senate, and Del. Bill Howell, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, have recently indicated that they intend to revisit this issue during the 2015 session of the General Assembly. Hopefully, that will increase the likelihood that serious action will be taken this time around.

The heartbreaking situation involving Bob and Maureen McDonnell could have been prevented if they had made better choices, but it also could have been prevented if Virginia did not permit gifts like these to be given to elected officials, and if we required more thorough and detailed disclosure of relationships that can influence an elected official’s actions.

There is nothing more important to successful governance than the public’s trust. The public’s trust is hard to gain and easy to lose. It has been lost, and it will take time to regain, but the General Assembly could take a huge step in the right direction by doing what it should have already done — strengthen Virginia’s ethics and gift-disclosure laws to make certain that a situation like this cannot occur again.

BILL BOLLING is the former lieutenant governor of Virginia and the chairman of the Virginia Mainstream Project. He can be contacted at