Effective ethics laws, in Virginia and elsewhere, depend on enforcement through prosecution, independent ethics review boards, ethics training, and transparency and openness in government. In other words, Virginia will have to do more than change a few gift laws currently under review.
Governor Terry McAuliffe, who was elected after Bob McDonnell, is on the right track. He established an independent ethics commission to enforce Virginia’s ethics laws. The review board will help Virginia embrace openness in financial disclosures and establish further transparency between state operations and the public’s access to that information.
Virginia should also consider enhancing its conflict of interest laws by increasing the base fine to an amount proportional to the violation. It might also consider instituting a “Designated Agency Ethics Official” to help advise state employees who are subject to the ethics laws. And it should enhance the transparency of state officials through more specific disclosure provisions that extend to the imputed interests of family members.
The time is ripe for reform and model laws already exist in other states and at the federal level for guidance.
State employees should emulate the ideal that their positions are meant to benefit the citizenry and ensure the public’s trust in effective state government. Tax revenues should be spent to benefit Virginia’s residents rather than their public representatives.
Virginia can certainly create a robust ethics program. In the aftermath of the McDonnell scandal, perhaps Virginia’s elected officials will review its ethical shortcomings and act to make officials, elected and appointed, more accountable. Governor McAuliffe has momentum and the opportunity to revitalize the public’s trust in state and local government.
If Virginia is successful in remaking its ethics regime, the next scandal might just be prevented or at least prosecuted.
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.