A hallway in the Capitol crowded with citizen and corporate lobbyists during the legislature’s 2019 session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia’s General Assembly has always set a low bar for campaign finance accountability. And every winter, our legislators fail to clear even that.
The way the state invites corruption by steadfastly rejecting even modest attempts to rein the influence of runaway, unlimited money in politics has put Virginia at the back of the class for decades in rankings by independent watchdogs.
Not even a scandal that nearly landed a Virginia governor in federal prison for gratuitous self-dealing with a high-roller businessman looking to game the system in favor of his company’s unproven nutritional supplement has shamed Virginia into tightening its campaign finance laws.
The most recent affront came last week when a Republican-ruled House of Delegates subcommittee euthanized legislation that would prohibit candidates for state office from using unspent money raised for their political campaigns on whatever they please.
Dinner at a five-star bistro? Bon appetit!
Head off with your honey for a Caribbean getaway? Bon voyage!
Any or all of that is fully legal here.
It’s a bipartisan failing. Last year, similar legislation passed the House unanimously only to have its throat slit in the Senate, both chambers then controlled by Democrats.
Virginia is one of only a few states that allows politicians to use unspent cash raised for campaigns to be diverted with impunity for personal use.
Oh, they’re supposed to note the purposes for which the campaign money was spent, but if they simply reimburse themselves for vague, un-itemized expenditures, that seems to work just fine.
In most states and at the federal level, that’s a crime. And it should be in Virginia. Legislation to outlaw it here comes back every legislative session. And, just as often, lawmakers invent new ways to sidetrack it and keep the gravy train rolling.
Does every legislator abuse his or her campaign account for personal gain? No. Having tracked campaign finances and lobbyist disclosures from officeholders and office seekers for many years as a Capitol Square scribe, I can say that it runs the gamut.
There were those so scrupulous that they itemized and documented every donation, petty cash disbursement; every coffee mug or tchotchke received from a lobbyist or constituent.
Others would report the bare minimum or less, whether it be hunting or cultural junkets courtesy of well-connected industry or interest groups or in-kind donations – some of them worth thousands of dollars – from political boosters or lobbyists with minimal detail about the thing of value.
Lobbyist gifting was reined in after Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted of federal felonies for unreported gratuities he and his family received from Jonnie Williams. Williams testified in 2014 against the former governor and his wife at the time, Maureen McDonnell, that he was trying to make his Anatabloc supplement part of state employees’ health benefits package. (Williams never got it.)
McDonnell was ordered to report to prison before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions.
But political cash? It continues to flow unrestrained, even as more states have imposed limits over the first two decades of the 21st century.
Virginia has always asserted a laissez faire argument for political finances – give as much as you want (individuals, PACs, corporations, unions, you name it) but report all you give.
Well into the 1990s, that was little more than a taunt as campaign finance reports filed by donors and candidates were on paper forms – literally tons of them, filling huge storerooms. You could hide almost anything that way until the mid-’90s when the Virginia Public Access Project began punching data from the paper forms into sortable electronic databases and making the information available, initially to media organizations that helped support it and ultimately to the world at no cost.
To the extent that the unlimited giving/full disclosure model works in Virginia, it’s a tribute to VPAP.
But even those advances have their limits. Campaign finance law constantly changes, creating new ways for shadowy influence groups to flood the system with anonymous “dark money” concealing its true source and its related public policy objectives at least until the elections are over.
There’s also little downside to providing misleading, incomplete or evasive information on campaign finance reports. Virginia law prescribes a civil fine – not even a misdemeanor – for campaign finance reporting violations.
Don’t bet on Virginia limiting donations or spending soon. We’ll continue to see the wealthy flood the system and bend it to their desires, but they already do that – even at the federal level with all its regulations – through Super PACs and dark money groups. In theory, if disclosure can be assured, there’s a philosophical argument in support of bottomless campaign giving and spending.
But what happened last Wednesday in a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee wasn’t just a missed layup. It was a team finding a way to throw the game.
The bill had passed the Senate 37-3. Its patron, Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, stood before a handful of delegates knowing that one bill to limit personal use of campaign money had already died in the Republican-ruled House. He had toned down his bill so that buying pizza for campaign volunteers or outfitting them with campaign-logo T-shirts would not be a violation. He was ready to cut more deals to win the panel’s favor.
One provision he considered a selling point allowed campaign money to pay for child care for campaign volunteers. Some states that ban personal use of campaign funds have added such exceptions to their law to foster volunteer participation in campaigns.
Then, in a remarkable display of legislative judo, Del. Kim Taylor, R-Dinwiddie, argued that campaigns have no business aiding volunteers with kids.
“That is a personal expense. It’s something you go into your campaign knowing you’re going to have to make arrangements for,” Taylor said according to Graham Moomaw’s reporting in the Mercury. Bell offered to remove it, notwithstanding Taylor’s seeming failure to recognize the conflict in her logic – that tanking the bill guaranteed that campaigns can continue spending money on exactly that (or any other) purpose.
Taylor and the panel’s four other Republicans voted to table Bell’s bill; its three Democrats voted to advance it.
Bell acknowledged that the bill wasn’t perfect but noted that it “will take care of the most egregious things.” It was a belief shared by the Senate’s top Republican, Minority Leader Tommy Norment of James City.
“People should know we’re here to serve… not to enrich ourselves,” Bell said.
Perhaps the laziest rationalization for deep-sixing the bill came from Del. Margaret Ransone, chair of the full P&E Committee, who fashioned a facile justification from Bell’s and Norment’s candor.
“Putting something in code that’s not perfect, that’s not just right, I feel like is wrong,” said Ransone, R-Westmoreland.
Perfection? Fallibility is indigenous to legislation authored by humans, particularly in a part-time deliberative body like our General Assembly. It has begat comically flawed legislation, yet here the perfect was made the enemy of the good.
In 2004, a bill that accidentally reinstated Sunday closing laws dating to the 17th century won unanimous approval in the Virginia Senate and passed the House of Delegates 88-9. It became law, forcing the General Assembly to return to Richmond in June to fix it before it could force the closure of stores and factories on the Christian Sabbath after its July 1 effective date.
Some of the legislature’s intellectual product has blown right past imperfect hell bent for moronic. In 2005, the House voted 60-34 to levy a $50 fine on anyone caught wearing trousers slung so low as to prominently display undergarments. Wiser heads prevailed before that one could become law.
If our elected lawmakers want Virginia to remain a backwater when it comes to campaign finance accountability and allow money solicited for public policy purposes to become personal slush funds, just say so. Voters would find the honesty refreshing.
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