Good examples and bad ones

Published 9:27 am Friday, July 31, 2015

It has been said that everybody serves as an example to somebody. Some people serve as a positive example, while others set an example of the pitfalls of doing things that ought to be avoided.

Such is the sad story of former Gov. Bob McDonnell that he now falls squarely into the latter category for those looking to make a career of politics in the commonwealth of Virginia. McDonnell was convicted on corruption charges stemming from his acceptance of lavish gifts from a businessman apparently seeking to curry favor for a tobacco-based medical product. His sordid story serves as a cautionary tale for other elected officials in Virginia.

Lawmakers appear to be taking heed of the lessons imparted by McDonnell’s failure to keep the trust of voters. Members of the General Assembly last year voted to impose a $100 cap on gifts and to remove the silly distinction between tangible gifts like cash and intangible ones like dinners and trips.

The new limits — or at least the environment of distrust that sprang up around McDonnell’s corruption trial — have made a big difference in the number and value of gifts accepted by elected officials in Richmond. A shorter reporting period imposed by the new law skews the figures somewhat, but the upshot of the most recent round of reports and local lawmakers’ comments on them is that most General Assembly members have largely kept their hands in their own pockets, instead of the pockets of lobbyists.

That’s good news for voters, as they can have more confidence their legislators are not being swayed to support causes based on expensive dinners, vacations thinly veiled as fact-finding missions or any of the other sorts of special treatment given only because of the power they have to affect legislation.

Among Western Tidewater’s legislators, Del. Richard Morris (64-R) continues to earn the highest praise for his policy of declining any such special treatment.

“It just makes it easier with the law,” Morris said recently. “It’s complicated with the tracking. I think the law can be used as a weapon against political adversaries, so I’d rather just not open that door.”

He admits that his policy can make him seem standoffish when constituents want to treat him to dinner out of hospitality, but he’s right that the trade-off for accepting that hospitality is the diminished trust of voters.

It’s pleasing to see legislators begin to address this problem endemic to elected office. Now that they’ve taken lessons from the negative example set by Bob McDonnell, they would do well to recognize the positive example set by people like Rick Morris.