Virginia's ethical labyrinth
The state needs to set up an independent counsel or some other independent watchdog group to monitor the activities of public officials.
By Steve Shannon
AS A FORMER state prosecutor, state legislator, candidate for Virginia attorney general, and now simply as a citizen, it's clear to me that the connection between special interests and policy in Virginia is excessive, public policy transparency is sorely lacking, and there's currently little incentive in Richmond to change things.
When I ran for attorney general last year, I called for strengthening Virginia's ethics rules for public officials. I lost that election, so I can't claim it was a top issue. Yet the issue speaks to the character of our representative democracy.
Last year, a state legislator was caught spearheading the creation of a university center while negotiating a paid position at the center. The General Assembly began - but never completed - an investigation, and subsequent ethics reform bills were drastically watered down or defeated.
Virginia journalists are now researching the activities of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. It is a fundraising "call center" operation that reported more than $2.6 million in revenue in Virginia in 2009. The media have been unable to locate the group's directors, and its expenditures are largely unknown.
Early last year, a Virginia consumer filed a complaint against U.S. Navy Vets. This resulted in the state Office of Consumer Affairs revoking the organization's exemption from filing annual registration and financial reports with the state. Afterward, the purported head of U.S. Navy Vets - Bobby Thompson of Florida - made several political contributions between $1,000 and $5,000 to Virginia legislators and candidates.
This year, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing the group to reclaim its exemption status. To their credit, Gov. Bob McDonnell and legislators who received contributions from Thompson later divested their campaign accounts of the funds, and the governor's office has called for an investigation of the group's activities.
In addition, Thompson contributed $55,500 to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's campaign - more than 10 times what he contributed to any other candidate.
Here's a key point about Virginia's bureaucracy. The Office of Consumer Affairs is part of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This department falls under the jurisdiction of the secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, who reports directly to the governor. The Office of Consumer Affairs is not part of the Office of the Attorney General.
Four days after Thompson gave Cuccinelli's campaign for attorney general $5,000, Cuccinelli publicly announced he would attempt to consolidate the responsibilities of the Office of Consumer Affairs under the Office of the Attorney General should he be elected. He later held a news conference to make the same pronouncement, less than three weeks after accepting another $50,000 from Thompson.
Earlier this year, two Republican legislators introduced bills to do just that - to give the attorney general primary authority for investigating and resolving consumer complaints related to the Virginia Solicitation of Contributions Law, which includes the reporting requirements and exemptions for charitable organizations soliciting in the state. One legislator served on Cuccinelli's transition team, and the other legislator - ironically - was recently appointed the state's new commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.
Neither bill garnered the necessary support in the state Senate. Had either bill passed as introduced, Cuccinelli's office would have become the primary point of contact for investigating and resolving consumer complaints such as the one against U.S Navy Vets.
A larger issue exists than whether Cuccinelli should keep the $55,500 contribution. The situation involving U.S. Navy Vets and Thompson's contributions, and last year's scandal involving a state legislator securing employment through legislation, were discovered by journalists - not by a statutorily authorized independent counsel or some other independent watchdog group within state government.
Without such a mechanism to monitor the ethical activities of public officials, Virginia taxpayers are left with only the hope that journalists can figure out the ethical labyrinth of Virginia's state government. Taxpayers deserve a better enforcement structure than this.
Steve Shannon, a lawyer and former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, ran against Ken Cuccinelli for attorney general last year.