IN VIRGINIA , it is presumed that the traditional way of doing things is necessarily the best way. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the state's lax ethics rules, which assume that members of the General Assembly and our governor will honor the "gentleman's agreement" to pursue public service for the purest motives, not for individual gain. We can no longer rely upon that assumption. In the past year, Virginians have learned that the current system of unlimited gifts and uneven disclosures has allowed a secret realm of influence, beyond the scrutiny of the press or public. The most disturbing aspect of the revelations regarding Gov. Bob McDonnell is not that his family accepted more than $100,000 in gifts and loans from a single donor. It's that the entire episode would have gone undetected but for an unrelated prosecution of the governor's chef for pilfering items from the royal refrigerator. What is the appropriate legislative response? As the General Assembly lumbers into 2014, there is a recognition that something needs to be done. On Jan. 7 , the House leadership announced a "bipartisan ethics compromise," which put a $250 cap on gifts with several significant exceptions (travel, food, sporting events). This bill is currently working its way through the House. The House solution will not work. It fundamentally fails to change the culture in Richmond , which still limits disclosure and maximizes influence in the hands of a few. A new paradigm is needed. I have filed four bills relating to ethics. They are not perfect ideas, and I am not a perfect patron. The reality is that money and politics will always be partners. However, the enactment of these bills, any of them, will mark a sea change in our laissez-faire political culture. First, and most critical, is the need for more transparency. Senate Bill 212 will let the sun shine in by repealing the General Assembly's exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. Currently, FOIA applies to all local officials in Virginia , but the General Assembly is blissfully free from this landmark law, which gives immediate access to publicly owned work papers and emails. Second among equals is the need to cap donations and contributions. Note the latter category. Without a cap on contributions, all the same problems will apply. Indeed, gifts and money will simply flow to campaign accounts rather than personal bank accounts. Senate Bill 218 deals with both these issues by capping total gifts to elected officials at $2,000 per year, while capping donations at $20,000 per election cycle, which is twice the federal cap. Nothing magical about these numbers. It simply puts a limit on the amount of influence that one contributor can buy. The last two bills, SB 219 and SB 220, round out the package. The first establishes a legislative ethics commission that can actually investigate these matters and issue sanctions, much as the State Bar functions for the legal community. The second prohibits the use of private attorneys to carry out state business, another ethical loophole which has become a lucrative sideshow to the McDonnell gift investigation. No more. Public business belongs to public attorneys, or those willing to work within those financial constraints. The Virginia Way is honorable, and so are its lawmakers. But we need more than trust. We must also verify. In 2014, we can establish laws to do both. Chap Petersen , a Democrat from Fairfax , serves in the Virginia Senate .
Most Popular Stories
- Where Are the World's Most Expensive Cities?
- Putin Gets Thumbs-up From Assad
- EU Breaks Off Talks With Russia
- House OKs $1 Billion for Ukraine
- Crimean Referendum Violates International Law: Obama
- BP Tripled CEO's Pay Despite Deepwater Horizon
- Nakamoto 'No Longer Involved' in Bitcoin
- Last Call for Hispanic Health Care Signups
- Florida Insurers Reach Out to Hispanics
- Cuba Accepts Invite for Talks With EU