Monday, June 29, 2009

The fault, Horatio, lies not in our politicians but in our selves

The Center of Public Integrity doesn’t think Virginia’s legislators have much.

A report released last week gives Virginia an “F” on the transparency of legislators’ financial disclosure statements and ranks Virginia 31st among the 50 states. Among the center’s complaints are that legislators fail to identify clients that they represent in court and before state agencies.

Understand that the center’s complaint isn’t that lawmakers are violating the law, but that the law itself is defective.

The fault for that lies, not with the General Assembly, but with Virginia’s voters.

Having worked as a legislative staffer and as part of state party staff, I can tell you that good government regulations that would fix those problems are disdained both by our elected representatives – of both parties – and their staffs.

Staff doesn’t want to stop the flow of campaign contribution gravy that pays their salaries and members don’t want to turn off the spigot of legalized bribes that insures they’ll have an easier time being re-elected. And they don’t feel they have to.

Because you don’t care.

“That doesn’t move one vote,” a senior staffer once told me of a proposal to limit campaign contributions to General Assembly and statewide candidates. The same is true of other “good government” initiatives like non-partisan redistricting. You, the voters, just don’t care about that.

And he’s right. The lack of any effective limits on campaign contributions hasn’t imperiled any incumbent’s time in office. Quite the opposite.

In case you don’t know, Virginia is one of the few states with no limits on campaign contributions. If you, or more likely Dominion Resources, wanted to give a candidate for governor a million dollars, that’s perfectly okay under Virginia law. As long as he reports the contribution.

Virginia politicians have gone for the “full disclosure” route rather than limit campaign contributions under the logic that “the public will decide” if a contribution was improper.

Except that you the public are not going to take up the time to look up who gave how much money to whom. And, if you do find out, usually as the result of an opponent’s negative advertising or a newspaper story, you don’t care.

We allow legislators to represent clients before state boards and agencies that they appoint and to practice law in front of judges that they elect, because you don’t care. It doesn’t affect your vote, so the politicians have no reason to change a system that benefits them.

That’s why Sen. Tommy Norment (R-3rd) didn’t think it was any big deal when he was appointed commissioner of accounts for Williamsburg and James City County. He didn’t even send out a press release. Because other legislators had held the same position before, some currently hold it and, with the exception of two cases, the voters haven’t cared.

He’s playing by the rules. The rules say there’s nothing wrong with him holding that position, to which he was appointed by a judge he voted to put on the bench.

When I wrote about that story last year we got a few letters and Last Word comments contending it was a conflict of interest. It’s not.

Virginia’s conflict of interest statute is so loosely written that, to be in violation, a member of the General Assembly would basically have to put in, and vote for, a bill that required the state treasurer to cut him a check. And, if the law specified that everybody in the state who looked like the legislator, or was the same height, or was in the same business also got the check, even that might pass muster.

Because you don’t care.

Richmond lobbyists aren’t shadowy figures who do their deals in secret. They wear their influence on their sleeves.

Sometimes, it’s rather comical. At about 4 p.m. on any day the General Assembly is in session you can see legislators in the halls searching for their “lobbyist of the day,” who’ll pick up the check for dinner. Sometimes lobbyists pick up checks for large groups of up to 100 that include legislators, their staff and sometimes even the press.

“If you can’t drink their whiskey and eat their steak and then vote against them the next day, you don’t belong here,” a veteran legislator once told me.

Unfortunately, the record shows that they more often vote for the folks with the whiskey and steaks.

That’s why Virginia is a bad state for underdogs. If you’re a tenant, you’ve got basically no rights that can be enforced in court against your landlord. If you’re a consumer, you’re left at the mercy of predatory businesses, like payday lenders. If you’re a lobbyist for Common Cause or the League of Women Voters pushing some “good government” reform, you won’t get the hearing that a big corporation will because you can’t afford to pick up dinner checks.

During roll call votes in the House of Delegates, you’ll often hear joking exhortations to “lean to the green.” It’s more than a joke. The side with the most “green” wins more often than not.

Lobbyist and legislators, of course, will tell you that the meals and the gifts and the campaign cash only buys “access” That’s not true. They buy bills and votes. Look up you favorite legislator on the Virginia Public Access Project’s website. See who their largest contributors are and then check how many bills they sponsor that benefit that donor and how many votes they cast for and against that donor’s interests.

It’s legalized bribery. But there’s nothing wrong with it, because that’s the system that’s in place.

Because you don’t care.

Jeff Shapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote his Sunday column about a new member of the FBI’s public corruption squad who’s looking around the General Assembly to get the lay of the land.

The FBI in Richmond has caught a couple of members of the Richmond City Council with their hands in the cookie jar over the past several years and successfully prosecuted them for bribery. They got caught with the money in their hands, more or less.

Members of the General Assembly are smarter than that.

I predict that FBI agent will see a lot of corruption at the Capitol. But very little of it will be against the law.

Because you don’t care.

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