The rapid unwinding of Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s political career has astounded many observers with its raw displays of venality and entitlement, but one self-styled expert says the problem is that Old Dominion’s head honcho should be paid even more.
Josh Barro, politics editor at Business Insider, argued in a column Friday that the American “civic fabric” would be less damaged by scandals like McDonnell’s and the corruption swirling around Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey if elected officials were paid a million dollars a year.
McDonnell, a Republican who grew up in Fairfax County, is under fire for not reporting more than $120,000 a prominent maker of dietary supplements paid to him and his wife. Star Scientific Inc. Chief Executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. also reportedly gave McDonnell’s daughter $10,000 as a wedding gift and paid $15,000 toward her lavish wedding at the governor’s mansion.
Williams also reportedly gave McDonnell a $6,500 Rolex watch.
In addition, McDonnell’s chef has been indicted for embezzlement, while the Commonwealth’s first family has had to repay thousands of dollars for food, booze and other items billed to the executive kitchen. The governor reportedly charged taxpayers for such items as sunscreen and dog vitamins.
This hanky panky comes on top of an annual food budget for the first family that is more than double the average per capita income for Virginia. McDonnell ran up $102,000 in kitchen expenses in 2012, a figure that was exceeded only by his predecessor Tim Kaine, who ate his way through $103,469 in 2009.
According to a 2010 memo from Virginia’s Secretary of Administration’s office, Commonwealth taxpayers are on the hook for a wide array of expenses for the first family. Associated Press, which obtained the memo, listed these as “dry cleaning for the first lady and governor, basic toiletries, cleaning and laundry detergent and provisions for family meals, state functions and events.” Secretary of Administration Lisa Hicks-Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.
In the face of such large living at the taxpayers’ expense, Barro, the son of economist Robert Barro, has one response: Pay McDonnell even more, because, “top politicians are going to feel entitled to live like they’re rich.” In his Business Insider Column, Barro writes:
“The Governor of Virginia makes $175,000 a year, and that is, in some sense, a lot of money… But it’s not nearly enough money to match the lifestyle of the sort of people you become surrounded by when you are a powerful political leader…
“If jobs like Senator and Governor paid about a million dollars a year, these sorts of financial scandals wouldn’t totally go away, but they would decline. McDonnell would have had plenty of money to buy his own Rolex.”
Barro does not produce any evidence for his claim that higher base salaries would reduce the need for pampering of public officials, a premise that does not appear to be supported by history or common sense.