I applaud Style Weekly for its feature article “Under the Influence” (Cover Story, Jan. 20, outlining the systemic influences of lobbying and incestuous political relationships in Virginia government. After describing the playing fields in Richmond the article states that “questions remain about whether Virginia's celebrated public disclosure system really protects the public from undue influence by paid lobbyists.”
In my opinion, based upon a broad range of experiences in and outside of Virginia, public disclosure does not alone protect the public. Your reporter states that lobbyists' defend the system by “point[ing] out that indictments and convictions of Virginia politicians are rare.” The reporter, apparently accepting this argument, concludes that the “lack of high-profile corruption cases seems to vindicate [the disclosure system]” as adequate to protect the public.
Generally, state and local prosecutors lack the resources and, at times the incentive, to handle investigations of public corruption other than obvious bribery. Federal investigations, generally, are not even initiated without significant evidence of wrongdoing on the part of a public official. Respect for the separate sovereignty, probability of high community respect for suspects (tougher to prove criminal allegations) and resource limitations play a part in such decisions. The feds in public corruption cases generally need to prove that a public official has obtained a payment to which he was not entitled, knowing that the payment was made in return for official acts.
Corrupt campaign contributions may constitute “the payment” but a quid pro quo act by the official must be proven between the contributor and the official. In Virginia politics the existing systemic influences of lobbying and revolving-door employment create, over a relatively extended period of time, symbiotic relationships that could allow the dispensation of benefits to powerful elite. Because the relationships with lobbyists, their clients and campaign contributors are continuing there probably would not be a direct, immediate correlation between a contribution and an official act to benefit the contributor, i.e. no provable quid pro quo. I contend simply that the lack of criminal prosecution is feeble evidence to support the effectiveness of disclosure in the prevention of undue influences in official decisions.
For a system such as Virginia's to be minimally effective I believe two additional factors would be essential. Neither is present to any significant degree in Virginia and Richmond in particular. The first of these would be journalism with continuing, independent, educated and active investigative reporting. The second necessary element is a citizenry which gives a damn about the appearance and the actuality of a government free from undue influence. I do not accuse any one or any entity of past or present corruption. I do not mean to impugn the character or integrity of lobbyists or officials. I merely recognize that lobbyists primarily function for the economic benefit of their clients and invest their time and money toward that end.
As your reporter asks, “it's another matter how well the public is served or if average citizens wield much influence.” Yet, why should anyone worry when the “good ol' boys” (sorry, but it still is a boy network) generally see that good works are done for the people while merely standing ready to draw “small” favors as needed for themselves.
Roger W. Frydrychowski
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney