The State Integrity Project found that Virginia’s ethics laws are among the least effective of the states for deterring corruption. The analysis cited Virginia’s weak conflict of interest laws, and found that those laws essentially have no bite.
The problem with conflict of interest laws in Virginia is not the wording of the laws but lax oversight, weak consumer representation protections, and loopholes that enable politicians to avoid penalties.
The state’s House and Senate ethics advisory panels can only investigate potential ethics violations upon receiving a signed, sworn complaint from a citizen of Virginia. The law (Code § 30-112) expressly precludes citizens from initiating investigations on their own.
Not only are there sparse possibilities to investigate or punish potential violations, it is also difficult to prove public corruption. The absence of any auditing procedures for financial disclosures submitted by state government officials or legislators reduces the probability of discovering ethics violations.
Virginia’s ethics regime allows government officials to conduct business with individuals, agencies, and entities that directly benefit themselves and their family members. The state law does require certain disclosures by government officials, such as identifying their private-sector employers, salaries, and the amount they spend on lobbying activities in excess of $50. Yet the forms are not audited and no independent ethics commission exists to bring ethics violations to the attention of the State Attorney General.
Further, state government officials are free to sit on charitable boards if they’re paid less than $10,000 and do not own more than 3% in equity of the charity. Lobbyists and state officials can legally influence organizations in which they have a vested interest and lobby for changes that cater to a personal agenda, rather than a public one.
New Jersey and California have recently revamped their ethics laws. California implemented commissions (such as the Fair Political Practice Commission) and specifically tasked other agencies with ethics enforcement. New Jersey created a similar program through a State Ethics Commission that provides mandatory ethics training to government employees.
In the concluding post (Part Three: Suggestions for improvement), I’ll discuss proposed solutions for Virginia by assessing ethics programs in other states and the federal government.
Part One of this series is here.
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.