Why Virginia needs ethics reform now

Ken Cuccinelli Former attorney general, Virginia
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Unlike in Washington, Virginia’s leaders don’t run from serious problems. We tackle them.

One of the reasons Americans hold Washington in such low regard is the perception that nothing ever gets done. Whatever the issue — no matter how urgent — they always seem to be “working on it.” They’ll hold press conferences, form working groups and “gangs,” but when it comes to real solutions, they are few and far between.

Right now, Virginians are looking to their state government and wondering whether we’re going to give ethics reform the immediate attention it deserves. If we wait until January, ethics reform will not receive the undivided attention of the General Assembly, and I do not believe our reforms would go as far in January as they would in August.

Why not take up this issue right now when it’s in the forefront of everyone’s mind? Telling the public, “we’ll get to it later,” is inadequate. That’s what the federal government does. Ethics reform is about restoring the public trust. When that is in doubt, nothing is more important than restoring it.

In recent days a number of leaders, including Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, have put forward constructive ideas for streamlining Virginia’s broken ethics laws. These ideas, however, will remain only words on a page unless we have an avenue to implement real change. That’s why I believe Governor McDonnell should immediately convene a special session of the General Assembly. Legislators will be able to come forward with their own ideas and reforms and hammer out their differences.

Should a special session take place, I would look to support a number of needed reforms, including a cap on gifts at an amount agreed upon by the General Assembly, a new requirement for spouses and immediate family members to take part in the disclosure process, extending restrictions related to General Assembly members’ lobbyist-spouses, a mandatory 10-day reporting period for significant travel expenses provided to a state official, and the formation of an independent state ethics commission.

I did not expect my colleagues in Richmond to jump for joy when I called on the governor to call a special session. Likewise, I predicted Terry McAuliffe, now the subject of two federal investigations, would dismiss my proposal as a gimmick-which he promptly did. But now is the time for people to come forward and be part of the solution. If my opponent doesn’t want to be part of it, that’s his prerogative.

As for me, I will be the first to admit that I’ve made my own mistakes when it comes to Virginia’s disclosure requirements. Though I was fully cleared by a Democratic Commonwealth’s Attorney, I’ve learned from my mistakes and believe they make me a more credible messenger in this much-needed debate.

Change — especially when it is needed most — is never easy. But the General Assembly should act now to take on ethics reform. Virginians are looking for action, and the sooner they get solutions from their elected representatives, the sooner and more completely will trust be restored in our state government.