Del. Ken Plum: Overdue Ethics Reform

Ken Plum/File photoFor the first time in a history that goes back to Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia governor has been indicted on federal corruption charges.

Although information on the activities of the federal grand jury had been leaking out for many months, former governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, who was indicted with him, and their stable of taxpayer-paid-for attorneys were able to stave off the formal indictment until he left office.

But the alleged wrongdoing took place while he was in office, during which time he and the first lady accepted a total of at least $165,000 in cash, loans and lavish gifts from the CEO of a diet supplement company. A review of the particulars of the indictment reveals a picture of a family that was in financial trouble with huge credit card debt but with a taste for designer clothing and accessories.

The former governor —  who worked as a criminal prosecutor, who served in the House of Delegates as a member of its Courts committee and who was attorney general of the state before becoming governor — acknowledges the loans and money that he has paid back and the gifts he received. But he continues to maintain his innocence despite federal law that makes it illegal to use a public office to enrich oneself. The former governor was clever in using his intimate knowledge of Virginia law to escape reporting the gifts by having them go to family members rather than to himself and by selling stock before the end of a reporting period and buying it back after the reporting deadline to escape disclosing it.

The entire episode is a huge tragedy for the McDonnell family and for the Commonwealth of Virginia. The former governor and his wife may go to jail. The “Virginia way” that has always prided itself on clean government has been sullied.

Committees in the House and Senate are at work to tighten up ethics laws for the legislative and executive branches of government. I participated in a bipartisan panel to get the process underway. Reporting requirements for anything of value received will be expanded to include family members and will be required at least twice a year.

An ethics commission is likely to be established to rule on the appropriateness of activities of members of state as well as local government. As part-time legislators who live in the local community much more time than in the capital city, legislators need to be able to participate in the activities of the local community as long as they do not conflict with their legislative duties. The new ethics rules and the commission should help clarify which activities and expenditures are acceptable.

The presence of laws does not completely stop wrong doing. It is up to individuals to first police themselves and to act in an ethical way. Ultimately it will be the voters who decide if their elected representatives are adhering to the common-sense ethical standards that they expect.

Ken Plum represents Reston in Virginia’s General Assembly.

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