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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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Former VA Gov. Bob McDonnell, Wife Indicted

Gov. Bob McDonnell/ARLnow.com file photo

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his wife Maureen McDonnell were indicted Tuesday on federal public corruption charges.

The McDonnells are accused of receiving numerous high-value gifts from businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. in exchange for McDonnell using his influence to benefit Williams’ Richmond-area business, Star Scientific.

The 43-page indictment lists more than $140,000 worth of luxury goods, golf equipment, clothing and dietary supplements subject to federal seizure if the McDonnells be convicted.

McDonnell left office Jan. 11 when his four-year term expired.

More from a Justice Department news release:

From April 2011 through March 2013, the McDonnells participated in a scheme to use the former governor’s official position to enrich themselves and their family members by soliciting and obtaining payments, loans, gifts and other things of value from Star Scientific, a Virginia-based corporation, and “JW,” then Star Scientific’s chief executive officer. The McDonnells obtained the things of value in exchange for the former governor performing official actions on an as-needed basis to legitimize, promote and obtain research studies for Star’s products, including the dietary supplement Anatabloc®.

As alleged in the indictment, the McDonnells obtained from JW more than $135,000 in direct payments as gifts and loans, thousands of dollars in golf outings, and numerous other things of value. As part of the alleged scheme, the official actions that Robert McDonnell performed included arranging meetings for JW with Virginia government officials, hosting and attending events at the Governor’s Mansion designed to encourage Virginia university researchers to initiate studies of Star’s products and to promote Star’s products to doctors for referral to their patients, contacting other Virginia government officials as part of an effort to encourage Virginia state research universities to initiate studies of Star’s products, and promoting Star’s products and facilitating its relationships with Virginia government officials.

The indictment further alleges that the McDonnells attempted to conceal the things of value received from JW and Star to hide the nature and scope of their dealings with JW from the citizens of Virginia by, for example, routing things of value through family members and corporate entities controlled by the former governor to avoid annual disclosure requirements. Moreover, the indictment alleges that on Oct. 3, 2012, Robert McDonnell sent loan paperwork to a lender that did not disclose the loans from JW, and on Feb. 1, 2013, the McDonnells signed loan paperwork submitted to another lender that did not disclose the loans. Similarly, the indictment alleges that on Feb. 15, 2013, Maureen McDonnell was questioned by law enforcement about the loans and made false and misleading statements regarding the defendants’ relationship with JW. Three days later, on Feb. 18, 2013, Robert McDonnell is alleged to have sent loan paperwork to one of the previously mentioned lenders disclosing the loans from JW. Additionally, after her interview with law enforcement, Maureen McDonnell allegedly wrote a handwritten note to JW in which she falsely attempted to make it appear that she and JW had previously discussed and agreed that she would return certain designer luxury goods rather than keep them permanently, all as part of an effort to obstruct, influence and impede the investigation.

An indictment is merely an accusation, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

If convicted, the McDonnells could each face a maximum statutory sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of the greater of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss on the conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud count, the honest-services wire fraud counts, the conspiracy to obtain property under color of official right count, and the obtaining property under color of official right counts; a maximum statutory sentence of 30 years in prison and a fine of the greater of $1,000,000 or twice the gross gain or loss on the false statement counts; and a maximum statutory sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of the greater of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss on the obstruction of an official proceeding count.

More information and updated statements from the McDonnell’s attorneys on Washingtonpost.com.

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