An awakening for the Commonwealth of Virginia occurred when the U.S. Justice Department indicted the state’s former governor for public corruption. Bob McDonnell was ultimately convicted on 11 counts of conspiracy, bribery, and extortion. In January 2015, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
McDonnell — who’s appealing his conviction — became the first Virginia governor to be found guilty of a felony. In the aftermath of the scandal, mending the wrongs from his ethics violations should include revisiting the laws and policies that allowed the abuses of power to occur.
Virginia recently passed an ethics reform bill responding to deficiencies in the gift laws, but other areas ripe for state ethics reform remain unchanged, mainly Virginia’s conflict of interest laws.
The ethical blunders of Governor McDonnell illuminated the need to add some teeth to Virginia’s gift laws. However, the incident failed to address the lax oversight of Virginia’s conflict of interest laws that are fraught with exemptions and flimsy requirements. Despite the implementation of ethics laws that seem to resemble those at the federal level, Virginia has lax oversight rules, weak consumer representation protections, and loopholes that enable officials to circumvent the enforcement of these provisions.
States across the country have similar problems, but the majority of them are much more effective than Virginia.
Conflict of interest laws present an assortment of compliance and ethical challenges in the federal and state government. Virginia’s conflict of interest rules set forth that over 25,000 government officials and employees disclose their financial interests. The rules state that “no person elected or appointed as a member of the governing body … shall have ‘a personal interest’ with his or her city or town or with certain other government agencies.”
Similar to the federal conflict of interest laws, these stipulations are meant to ensure that state officials and members of their household do not obstruct the public’s trust in local government by using their public service positions for personal gain. Unfortunately, Virginia falls far behind other states and the federal government due to the insufficient conflict of interest laws, lack of enforcement, and general reluctance to pursue corruption charges.
A disconnect exists between the enforcement of conflict of interest violations at the federal level and the ethics enforcement mechanisms among states. Various statutory and regulatory measures were put into place by the federal government to ensure the public’s trust in government, such as the creation of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, Code of Federal Regulations, and Standards of Ethical Conduct in the executive branch.
Unlike Virginia’s ethics laws, the federal ethics laws have teeth that capture and punish the ethical misconduct of government employees. An example was Darleen Druyun, a federal official who used her public position with the U.S. Air Force to inflate the price of a contract for Boeing in exchange for future employment.
Virginia isn’t the only state with an ethics programs riddled with flaws and loopholes.
Georgia for example, allowed over 650 government employees to accept gifts from vendors doing business within the state. These gifts were valued at substantially more than the $25 limit and took the form of concert tickets, hot air balloon rides, spa certificates, and expensive meals. In Wisconsin, judges are immune from recusing themselves from cases involving their own campaign donors.
In Part Two: Laws without teeth, I’ll explore some of the specific problems with Virginia’s conflict of interest laws.
In the concluding Part Three: Suggestions for improvement, I’ll talk about ways Virginia can create a more trusting and transparent state government.
Aaron Levin is a J.D. candidate, May 2016, at The George Washington University Law School. He recently authored an article titled “Reassessing Virginia’s Conflict of Interest Laws” available here. Aaron can be contacted here.