The ongoing corruption investigation of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell reinforces the need for opposition researchers to study and understand their state’s ethics laws. The Code of Virginia outlines prohibited conduct at §2.2-3103. To say the code is lax would be an understatement. There is no limit to the number of gifts or amount a person can give as a gift to Virginia officials. The Statement of Economic Interests filed by most state and local officials offers limited information and does not require the reporting of gifts to family members or business associates.
Federal authorities have been investigating allegations Gov. Bob McDonnell accepted personal and business loans and gifts from Star Scientific and its CEO Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., some of it unreported. One of the more interesting allegations reported in the media involved an engraved Rolex watch for the Governor. Williams reportedly gave the $6,500 watch to McDonnell’s wife who gave it to the Governor as a present. McDonnell’s defense to the allegations has been he either didn’t know Williams had given family members gifts and loans or that the current disclosure form does not require him to report it. With the watch, McDonnell is not required to disclose gifts from relatives or report gifts given to family members. A simple way to get around reporting requirements.
McDonnell and his wife can’t be the first politicians to take advantage of this gigantic loophole. How many other Virginia politicians and senior officials are sporting expensive watches and jewelry purchased by wealthy special interests and given to them as gifts by their spouse? What other possible ways are there to circumvent donation reporting requirements? Could a politician be driving around in a $70,000 car registered in his wife’s name and received as a gift by her? Would we ever know if a corporate special interest paid for a year of collage for a politician’s adult child away at school? How about weddings and honeymoons, or a bar mitzvah or birthday party for grandchildren?
When it became clear Williams was cooperating with investigators McDonnell’s people portrayed him as a somewhat dubious businessman. McDonnell spokesman Rich Galen told the Virginian-Pilot “Jonnie Williams has been in trouble with government entities since the earliest days of his business career.” Odd since McDonnell had no trouble associating with Williams if the money flowed.
Federal prosecutors have set a deadline for deciding if they will charge McDonnell no later than Labor Day. Anticipating a possible indictment Republican gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli threw McDonnell under the bus with his recent television ad saying “Cuccinelli personally launched the investigation into Bob McDonnell and called for immediate reform to strengthen ethics laws.” Things should be getting interesting soon.
Many states offer new legislators guides on various topics including ethics. Virginia has A Legislator’s Guide to Conflicts of Interest and Rules of Conduct. The 2009 guide is still valuable since the law has not changed from when the guide was written.