On a lovely June day in 2011, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was a proud dad, playing host to a wedding bash for his daughter Cailin at the Executive Mansion.
About 200 guests enjoyed a sumptuous, $15,000 nuptial feast that featured poached shrimp — all paid for by Jonnie Williams, a McDonnell crony and head of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific in Henrico County.
The gift wasn't disclosed by McDonnell until The Washington Post revealed it earlier this month. But what's more remarkable is that it's difficult to make a case that McDonnell did anything wrong: The governor isn't legally required to disclose the gift because the recipient was his daughter.
Indeed, the Old Dominion is one of eight states to receive an F rating in a recent survey by the State Integrity Investigation Project. Virginia placed 47th out of 50 states based on awful scores in public access to information, executive and judicial accountability and budgetary, lobbying and ethics enforcement.
"The systems and procedures in Virginia for accountability and procedure are weak," says Gordon Witkin, managing director of the project.
Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money and State Politics, based in Helena, Mont., says that "Virginia is one of four states that have no limits on contributions. It is one of seven states with no limits on corporate giving."
Virginia also allows unlimited gifts as long as they're disclosed annually. Florida, by contrast, forbids all gifts — including a cup of coffee. Virginia also is one of nine states that has no ethics commission.
Why so lax? One explanation is that years ago, the idea took shape that Virginia's politicians are gentlemen and ladies above the tackiness of graft. That would be in marked contrast to such sleaze pots as, say, Illinois and New Jersey, which received a "C" and a "B+" ranking for accountability in the State Integrity survey. Witkin says that states such as these erect tighter rules after significant scandals.
And that leads to a chicken or egg kind of problem. "I don't think the level of public corruption in Virginia is high at all," political analyst Bob Holsworth says, noting that the survey rated the toughness of laws, and not how crooked a state is.
In light of the McDonnell wedding meal, however, "the gift issue is clearly a loophole that should be closed," Holsworth adds. For starters, he says, gift disclosures should include immediate family members of the public official.
Witkin says Virginia's preference for loose regulation is based on its limited government, libertarian mindset that is more in keeping with attitudes in Western states than the Northeast or Midwest. "It's like in Wyoming, where a state senator was asked why it was OK to make a right or left turn in a car without signaling," Witkin says, relaying his response: "If you want to make a turn, it's no one else's damned business."