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Commentary: Commonwealth of Corruption

Looking for a Blagojevich connection? Try Virginia, which ranks 11th in the country in criminal political convictions.



So, now that 2009 has arrived, what Virginia political myths can we put to bed for all eternity?

Modern Virginia will never vote for a Democrat in a presidential election.

Scratch that one. Thank you very much, Barack Obama.

A fire wall separates the Virginia Democratic Party from its national counterpart. 

Uh-uh. Maybe back when political boss Harry F. Byrd ruled the roost. Certainly not with Gov. Tim Kaine as the incoming chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Virginia stands as a beacon of purity in government.    

Sorry, that's not true either — not if a Department of Justice report released last month can be believed.

According to the tally, Virginia ranked 11th nationally in convictions in state, local and federal public corruption cases handled by the department's public-integrity section from 1998 to 2007.

The list of culprits — including elected officials, government workers and government contractors— was higher in only 10 jurisdictions: Florida (No. 1), New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, the District of Columbia and Louisiana.

True, none of the 303 Virginia cases tainted the upper echelons of state government. Most appear to involve corrupt government contractors living in Virginia, and the state ranking improves somewhat, to 19th, when figured on a per capita basis.

But Virginians convinced that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's stripe of pay-to-play politics would never surface in the Old Dominion might consider wiping their glasses or downing a shot of humility.

They also might line up in support of a good-government proposal that will surface when the 2009 General Assembly convenes Wednesday. The measure, introduced by Chesterfield Republican Delegate Sam Nixon, would bring greater transparency to the reports filed annually by the hundreds of lobbyists who seek to influence state government. 

And that, in turn, might be one significant step in signaling to anyone contemplating a misdeed that shenanigans will not be tolerated.

“The more robust your reporting and disclosure is, the less likely there is to be a problem,” says Nixon, who has made financial disclosure by government officials something of a cause since entering the statehouse in 1994.

In a state where anything goes in terms of campaign contributions — there are no dollar limits, no screens on donors — the public's chief protection against abuse remains disclosure, which makes it all the more perplexing that the state has a long history of dragging its feet when it comes to creating meaningful reporting.

For years, for instance, the State Board of Elections had almost no authority to ensure that campaign contribution reports were filled out and filed correctly. Even today, genuine auditing remains an elusive dream. 

The chief counterpoint to that vacuum is the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that provides computerized access to contribution and spending reports and helps the public glean meaning and trends behind the numbers.

Last year, the project embarked on a new phase of its mission — reporting far more extensively on the annual reports filed under state law by lobbyists. After converting the information on some 10,000 sheets of paper into electronic form, the project revealed a glaring problem: Intentionally or not (and in most cases, I'll grant you, probably not), the reporting was so inconsistent and vague as to be largely meaningless.

A few lobbyists listed the specific bills they sought to influence. Many others gave only a general outline, including pronouncements as nebulous as “all matters of concern to the client.”

The Community Financial Services Association of America, which invested almost $2.2 million protecting payday lenders, drew heat as the top spender among lobbying groups. But it's far from clear that others lobbying the legislature calculated their expenditures in as complete a way.

Some may have spent just as much but masked the fact through vague reporting.

Ways of assigning costs for entertaining lawmakers appear to be a hodgepodge as well. Some groups divided the total cost of an event by the number of lawmakers attending to arrive at an average individual cost. That likely overstated spending per legislator, since nonlegislators also attend such events.

Conversely, others appear to have divided the costs of a reception or dinner among several sponsors, thereby skirting a $50 per legislator reporting threshold. 

Nixon's legislation attacks those problems in several ways. It asks lobbyists to identify specific bills they seek to influence, requires them to reveal whether their lobbying fees are all or just part of the total paid them by a company or group during the reporting period, sets a clearer method for determining the per-legislator cost of an event, and instructs the secretary of the commonwealth to review each statement for accuracy and completeness.

Those relatively modest changes could go a long way toward injecting some oomph into reports that presently produce as many questions as answers.

“Anytime someone is being hired specifically to influence a legislator, there should be transparency and the public has a right to know,” says Nixon, dismissing privacy complaints.

Would such reporting have prevented the 303 “abuses of the public trust” attributed to Virginia over 10 years by the Justice Department? Of course not.

Since only a partial breakdown is provided, it's impossible to know how many of the Virginia culprits were elected officials. Even so, it doesn't take a government report to recall Virginia officeholders who trashed the public trust, from former Richmond Mayor Leonidas Young, who pleaded guilty to mail fraud, obstruction of justice and filing a false tax return in 1999, to former Henry County Sheriff H. Franklin Cassell, who pleaded guilty in May 2007 to one count of lying to federal investigators about a scheme to sell drugs and guns seized from criminals.

Beefing up the lobbying reports would at least say that Virginia legislators are savvy enough to recognize the potential for abuse and to try to head it off. Particularly at a time when newspapers and their investigative resources are in a tailspin, citizen watchdogs are critical.

Transparency ought to be the watchword when it comes to financial disclosure by officials and those who seek to influence them. Trust, if you will, but trusting alone is an invitation to abuse. S

Margaret Edds is a former editorial writer in the Richmond bureau of The Virginian-Pilot.

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