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New 'SWAMP’ Index Gives Virginia Low Marks for Ethics Laws

McDonnell stands in front of press frowning
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell after he was sentenced to two years in 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the charges. (Craig Carper/VPM News)

Virginia politicians face some of the loosest ethics rules in the U.S., according to a new index from nonpartisan group Coalition for Integrity.

Just five states ranked lower than Virginia in the coalition’s States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials (S.W.A.M.P.) Index. The ranking tracks whether states (and Washington D.C.) have rules to thwart potential corruption and conflict of interests and punish lawmakers who disobey the rules. The states with the strongest ratings -- Washington, Rhode Island, and California -- have ethics agencies that investigate wrongdoing, subpoena witnesses, and dole out punishments, and whose members are protected from politically-motivated removals.

Shruti Shah, the coalition’s director and a Virginia resident, said little had changed in Virginia since former Gov. Bob McDonnell faced federal corruption charges for accepting expensive gifts from a Richmond businessman. McDonnell’s two-year prison sentence was  overturned by the Supreme Court in 2016.

More recently, Republican congressional candidates Nick Freitas -- a delegate from Culpeper -- and Bob Good -- who previously served on the Campbell County board of supervisors -- faced questions over inconsistencies in the assets they listed on the state and federal disclosure forms. Good won his election in the 5th Congressional District, while Freitas lost a tight race against Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-7th).

“I think scandals do help [change laws], but Virginia has had its history of scandals,” Shah said. “I think what’s needed is more momentum, and a push -- not just by ordinary citizens but those in the legislature.”

Lawmakers created the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council in 2014, in the midst of the McDonnell scandal. But Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) said it lacks teeth.

“It tells delegates and senators and elected officials how to get away with accepting gifts -- and where the lines are and what they can do -- as opposed to investigating things they weren’t supposed to do,” Simon said.

Simon introduced legislation giving the council investigatory powers in 2017. But because the ethics council was set up to confidentially advise officials, not investigate them, and lawmakers raised concerns over how to do both, the bill was tabled. 

When Democrats flipped control of the General Assembly in 2019, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) told reporters they would put off acting on campaign finance and ethics changes until 2021, citing the issues’ complexity. Simon said the caucus still supported that goal, but argued that it would be more difficult in an abbreviated 30-day session. Republicans forced that reduction from the customary 45-day off-year sessions because they are unhappy with the length of this year’s special session.

“I don't think there's any real resistance in the House caucus to taking some of these steps,” Simon said. “The challenge now is going to be finding the stuff that's relatively easy, and that moves us forward for this very, very short session, and then figuring out what we need to work on more for the years to come.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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