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Tightening loopholes and increasing penalties are inadequate without an independent watchdog.
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
State legislators who rebuffed calls for a special session on ethics reforms this fall haven’t just elbowed the issue aside. They’re huddling to discuss stricter anti-corruption rules, a good sign that they plan to pursue legislation when they gather at the state Capitol in January.
Those efforts are laudable, but voters need to keep a close eye on the proposals as they take shape. Otherwise, the end result will be a wad of wet noodles, measures that sound tough but fall short on enforcement. Virginians must insist on a big stick and a burly watchdog to wield it in the form of an independent ethics commission.
So far, much of the talk among legislators has focused on specific loopholes in existing disclosure requirements, in particular one that allows spouses and family members of elected officials to accept gifts without reporting them.
That weakness in the law allowed Gov. Bob McDonnell, through his wife and children, to collect a luxury watch and other gifts from a businessman who has a pending tax dispute with the state.
But tightening loopholes and increasing penalties aren’t enough. Forty-one states have independent ethics commissions established by law or constitution to police misbehavior.
Virginia does not. Instead, the state relies on an office under the secretary of the commonwealth that lacks the staff or the authority to do more than maintain files of financial reports.
Both of the major party gubernatorial candidates this year have expressed support for an ethics commission. It will be up to the victor on Election Day to craft a detailed plan and secure the necessary votes for passage in the legislature. Among the necessary ingredients: The commission must have the power to investigate complaints, but also to monitor compliance through regular audits of financial reports. It should be granted authority to subpoena witnesses, hold public hearings and levy sanctions. The commission should be charged with issuing advisory opinions and recommending changes in ethics laws.
To ensure credibility, commission members should be appointed by the governor and legislature, and they should be removable only for misconduct or upon the expiration of their terms. Elected officials, candidates and lobbyists should be excluded from membership, along with their family members and employees. Commissioners should file the same disclosure reports as required for those whom they oversee.
The takeaway from this year’s season of scandal is “trust, but verify.” Virginians who want clean government must insist that new ethics laws are paired with a watchdog accountable only to them.
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