Today, let’s talk about Virginia, host of the nation’s most interesting off-year election. True, the New York mayor’s race has been pretty frisky since we acquired Anthony Weiner as a candidate, but I’m still going with Virginia.
The governor’s race there has a dandy ethics controversy that began with charges that a businessman with a rather dicey background gave Gov. Bob McDonnell $15,000 to pay for the catering at his daughter’s wedding. Actually, this would have been perfectly legal if McDonnell had just disclosed it. Under Virginia’s ethics laws, the governor can accept anything — house, car, private jet, former Soviet republic — as long as he puts it in the proper form.
He also might have been able to get off the hook when the transaction was discovered, just by saying he forgot to mention it. (Virginia’s rules are more flexible than a Slinky.) But McDonnell claimed total innocence, arguing that the $15,000 was a wedding gift to his daughter and, therefore, didn’t count.
“It’s caused a fair amount of pain for me personally,” he said. “I’m a governor, but I’m a dad, and I love my daughter very much.”
What, exactly, do you think that means? That McDonnell feels bad about shoveling the blame onto his offspring? That he could not have afforded to give her all the jumbo shrimp she deserved without financial assistance?
Looks like an investigation for Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli! Except — whoops — it turned out that Cuccinelli had also taken gifts from the same businessman, some of which he, too, had failed to report. Like several stays in a vacation home, one of which involved a catered Thanksgiving dinner. Have you noticed a theme here?
McDonnell’s term is up and Cuccinelli is running to replace him. Perhaps unreported freebies will be a big campaign issue. Although in a more perfect world, voters might focus on the attorney general’s two-year investigation of a University of Virginia scientist for the crime of believing in global warming.
But, still, the catered affairs are pretty interesting. When politicians take freebies, it is, alas, generally more compelling than conflicts involving campaign finance. Governor McDonnell had previously taken more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the same benefactor, the dietary supplement maker Jonnie Williams. But somehow that seemed to pale beside those shrimp.
“There’s a personal relationship attached to gifts and perks,” said Peggy Kerns, the director of the National Conference of State Legislatures Center for Ethics in Government. A former Colorado lawmaker herself, Kerns offered a vision of resentful voters, sitting shivering at the end zone of a Broncos game, while comfy officials enjoyed the buffet in a corporate sponsor’s luxury box.
Campaign contributions do way, way more to corrupt the political process than gifts to politicians. Unfortunately, it’s harder to make the emotional connection to a wayward PAC. This is why so many public officials get into trouble for accepting free home repairs. Everybody wants a kitchen with granite countertops. But few of us yearn to purchase our own negative ad campaign.
Do you remember John Rowland, the governor of Connecticut who got sent to the clink for corruption? A ton of corruption, including an aide who took a bribe in the form of gold coins that he then buried in the backyard. But the thing that stuck in everybody’s mind was the free $3,600 hot tub.
This week, Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, celebrated his release from prison after serving three years for eight felony charges, from tax fraud to lying to White House officials. But we will all remember his fall from grace in terms of $250,000 in apartment renovations. (Kerik was welcomed home with a shrimp scampi dinner provided by a star of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” It was probably a gift, but we don’t care anymore.)
Virginia believes that as long as officials report what they take, the system will work honorably. But there’s not even a mechanism to assure those reports are accurate. There isn’t a huge record of political corruption, but, as John McGlennon, a professor of government at William and Mary pointed out, “our laws are so loose, it’s hard to run afoul of them.” The home of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson regards itself as someplace special. But the rules on campaign contributions are pretty much the same as in Texas.
“Virginians probably would not want to hear you say that,” said McGlennon.
Some states have already figured out an answer to the gift question, which is to prohibit officials from accepting even a free cup of coffee from lobbyists or people who do business with the government. This appears likely to happen in Virginia several months after hell freezes over. And that’s actually the easier issue. The big problem is campaign contributions, which have become so huge and complicated that it’s hard for despairing voters to get their heads around them.
If we could only figure out a way to require that they all are made in the form of shrimp.