Vigilant in Virginia: The Case for an Ethics Commission
Governor Bob McDonnell is on the record as saying that “Virginia has long been a state marked by honest, transparent and ethical governing by both parties.” To an extent, he may be right. With the exception of a few ethical scandals over the past decade, Virginia has maintained a habit of clean, open politics.
However, in a new report from the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia received a failing grade (an F!) on standards of transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption measures in place across the state.
The report analyzed corruption risk indicators, such as access to information, campaign finance, accountability, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, and ethics enforcement, among other criteria, and concluded that Virginia ranks in the bottom four (47th) of all states nationwide. Only Wyoming, South Dakota, and Georgia did worse.
Certainly this should raise the attention of lawmakers and the public statewide. At a minimum, it behooves our state to implement measures so that Gov. McDonnell’s praise for Virginia government is not just empty rhetoric.
In this vein, the state should establish a full-time, full-disclosure ethics commission, one whose oversight and investigatory abilities are not ad hoc. Such a full-time ethics commission, comprised of legislators, citizens, and ethics experts, should be charged not only with investigating ethics violations as they emerge (as was the case with Del. Hamilton of Newport News who was convicted of bribery and fraud), but also find solutions, entertain reforms, and take action to address possible ethical quandaries writ-large. For instance, the commission can address legislators’ ability to take jobs with companies they represent. This, after all, opens possible avenues for corruption and ethics violations.
Ethics is a topic that should continuously permeate the halls of the General Assembly. All legislators should be reminded, and have a real, oversight committee to do so, of the ethical limitations of their actions. Further, ethics should remain on the conscious of every citizen and voter. After all, the purpose of an election is, by some accounts, to ensure the corrupt and unfit not retain or win office.
While Virginia does have an ethics committee in both houses of the General Assembly (currently under the Rules Committee), this is not enough. These committees, comprised of legislators, are only restricted to legislators and not citizens, or other experts who may be better suited to determine ethical rules. Thus, instituting an independent commission is in tall order. Indeed, U.S. Congress recognized this when it created, in addition to its standing ethics committee, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).
All in all, Virginia is fortunate to have a clean tradition of honest, open politics. Our leaders remind us of this fact constantly. In fact, it is possible that this clean bill of health is part of the reason why Virginia has so few anti-corruption measures it place; the history of corruption is so low and never needed addressing.
Nonetheless, recent incidents have some in the public, including myself, thinking otherwise. Delegate Phil Hamilton’s bribery and fraud is one example. Thus, it is essential that our state, currently without a full-time and open ethics commission and one of 9 states without one, to implement a commission now.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of members of the NDP Steering Committee.