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Ethics reform urged

Friday, January 24, 2014

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Current and former members of the local political delegation reacted to the 14-count federal indictment of former governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, and suggested ways to avoid similar situations in the future.

“It’s like being kicked in the gut,” former delegate Don Merricks said when describing his reaction to the indictment issued Tuesday.

The McDonnells were indicted on federal corruption charges. They are accused of accepting $165,000 in loans and gifts from the head of a health supplement company, The Associated Press reported. McDonnell has denied any wrongdoing.

Merricks, who represented the 16th District until the end of 2013, when he did not seek re-election, said that in his dealings with McDonnell, he saw no

evidence of “the position go(ing) to his head. I never saw the fact that he thought he was better than anybody else. He would stand for his principles and what he wanted to do policy-wise, but it is so unlike him to see this happening. It’s not the governor I knew. I don’t know if he was just so busy doing the people’s business that he didn’t do his own or what. ... I am so, so disappointed in this whole fiasco mess. I just wish it hadn’t happened.”

To prevent similar occurrences in the future, Merricks said, legislators need to “shore up the requirements for reporting” gifts. “We have a good group in Richmond, but unfortunately when you’re there for a while, you kind of get used to the power,” he added.

Common sense also should be used, he said.

“This didn’t pass the smell test,” Merricks said of allegations outlined in the more than 40-page indictment. “Anything you do, if it doesn’t pass the smell test, you leave it alone.”

Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Glade Hill, called the McDonnell case “tragic,” but “an indictment is one thing. Finding guilt hasn’t happened. I always follow the system.”

But there are concerns about state laws on gifts and ethics, he said, and the House is working on a 100-150-page package of reforms that will cover four areas: gifts; creation of an ethics advisory commission; moderning and updating the disclosure system; and requiring ethics and disclosure training for all legislators.

But there always will be gray areas, Poindexter said. For example, if someone pays for a legislator’s trip to learn more about agriculture or wineries, “is that a gift or increasing your job knowledge?”

The reform package being crafted will address many of those areas, but it will not be perfect, he added.

Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, said Thursday that he is confident some reporting requirements will be tightened this year.

But like Poindexter, he said “there is a fine line there of what you can do and what you shouldn’t do” as citizen legislators who serve in the legislature only a few months out of the year. He supports creation of an ethics council to answer legislators’ questions on these issues.

Marshall recalled that when McDonnell was in Danville in July, “he apologized to me and said, ‘I didn’t do anything illegal. I didn’t do anything smart. I didn’t break the law.’”

“Now, we’ll have to see” how the court case plays out, Marshall added.

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Glade Hill, said that “even though we thought it might happen, it was still stunning to me” when the indictment was announced. “It was a sad day for the commonwealth of Virginia.”

While he supports ethics reform — and co-sponsored an ethics reform package of legislation — Stanley said “I don’t think there are any new ethics rules that we could pass that would prevent” similar incidents from happening, because McDonnell’s case involved “transactions between two people in regards to a loan. You need to look beyond the indictment” and the charges to realize that the government has a hard case to prove.

McDonnell “is a man of integrity. ... I am hopeful a jury of his peers will find that he has done nothing wrong,” Stanley said.

Newly elected Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham, did not serve during McDonnell’s administration. Still, he said he was dismayed that “this otherwise very successful governor is tainted with these indictments. Of course, I recognize that he’s made the statement that he will contest the indictments, and as an attorney, I recognize” that an indictment is not an indication of guilt.

Adams said there have been discussions in the Republican caucus about ethics reform. He believes those discussions will result in a bipartisan approach to reforms.

Regardless of the number of laws on the books, Adams said “it comes down to each individual” to abide by them. “I answer to the people back home” and not any special interest group or organization, he added.

Ward Armstrong, a former delegate who spent 19 years in the General Assembly — including part during McDonnell’s administration — said he was saddened to learn about the indictment, but the situation “also reaffirms my belief that significant ethics reform needs to take place in Virginia.”

Without ethics reform, a similar incident could occur in the future, Armstrong said. A bill that will be considered in the current session of the General Assembly “is a Band-Aid” to reform, he said. That proposal would limit the amount of gifts from individuals to $250, but it does not limit the number of times a person could contribute up to that limit.

“What kind of law is that,” Armstrong asked. He said he thinks contributions should be limited to $100 in the aggregate, and possibly include a hospitality exemption so that constituents could treat their legislator to dinner.

“Now we can debate whether there ought to be gifts or not, but at least you ought to have stringent reporting requirements,” Armstrong said. “The bill they’ve got now is just to say ‘We did something’ and to placate the public. ... I’ve always been proud of Virginia, and I’ve always been proud of governance. That said, we are all people and all subject to frailty and human temptations. Just because we are Virginians doesn’t mean we are exempt.”

Armstrong said he supported ethics reform when he was in the legislature, but “it’s like pulling a truck uphill without wheels, because nobody wants to make it harder on themselves. But it’s got to be done. Virginia’s ethics laws have gaping holes and here’s an example,” he said of McDonnell’s alleged situation.

The McDonnells’ case may lead to a review of other administrations and/or legislators, Armstrong said. However, he said former governors Tim Kaine, Warner and Jim Glimore met or exceeded reporting requirements. For instance, Kaine “reported every gift he ever got, not just what the law required,” Armstrong said. Kaine even reported gifts of “$5 ball caps. I served with him and I know, and therein lies the difference.”

In McDonnell’s case, Armstrong said, “I’m not sure everything got reported.”

Armstrong said he and his wife, Pam, were friends with the McDonnells.

“And although he was on the red team and I was on the blue, (McDonnell is a Republican; Armstrong, a Democrat) we had about as good of a relationship” as possible, Armstrong said.

He noted that McDonnell has said his behavior showed a lack of judgment. “It will remain to be seen if it was criminal,” Armstrong added.


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