Virginia Democratic Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-35) is a man of strong opinions when it comes to government ethics standards – basically, that we shouldn’t have any. That was clear (again) when I spoke on Jan. 10 at the Fairfax County Delegation’s Annual Public Meeting.
Senator Saslaw presided. It was an opportunity for citizens of the state’s largest county, like me, to speak to their state senators and delegates before the legislature convened in Richmond on Jan. 14. It happened one week after the historic sentencing of former Governor Bob McDonnell for two years for corruption and bribery. This sad episode showed convincingly that Virginia operates largely on the honors system when it comes to ethics and that the honors system doesn’t work anymore.
I thought it would be a great chance to raise the issue of ethics reform with the most powerful Democrat in the Virginia legislature. The results were revealing.
I was speaker number 43. Each speaker was allocated three minutes and generally received a simple “Thank you,” from Senator Saslaw. I began with a quick explanation of the founding of Checks and Balances in 2009 by people who were concerned about how investigative journalism had shrunk while a tidal wave of lobbying money from the fossil fuel industry undermined the growth of clean energy. (See the entire video here.)
I noticed I had not gotten Saslaw’s attention, as he was talking with others on the panel. But I went on, saying that I wanted to talk about the sad state of ethics in the Commonwealth.
Corruption Risk Scorecard
I pointed out that according to the State Integrity Investigation’s Corruption Risk Scorecard, Virginia ranks 47th out of the 50 states with an overall grade of F.
I seemed, by that point, to have gotten the Minority Leader’s attention. I know I had the attention of Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34), whose ethics reform bills would limit campaign contributions and gifts. Sitting near him was Delegate Marcus Simon (D-53), who was planning on introducing a bill to limit what campaign contributions could be spent on. Simon was quoted in the Fairfax Times as saying:
“If you can go and spend leftover campaign funds on whatever you want, it’s not really any different than taking a bribe.”
Other members of the legislature have ethics reform bills. The Republican leadership has proposed reforms, as has Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe.
None of those proposals went far enough, I asserted. “There’s simply too much coziness allowed with corporations. The General Assembly should pass a law that restricts members from accepting any political contributions from corporations with legislation pending before the legislature.
“Last year, North Carolina installed 13 times the solar photovoltaic capacity as Virginia has in its entire history,” I said. Yet two days before, “the Winchester Star reported that a 20-megawatt solar array—capable of powering 20,000 homes—was scuttled in Clark County. The developer blamed Dominion Virginia and other utilities for their lack of interest in buying the electricity.”
I pointed out that last year, Dominion was the largest donor to state-level politicians with over $1.3 million in campaign contributions.* “No wonder Dominion Virginia gets its way when it comes to energy in Virginia,” I stated.
I had Senator Saslaw’s attention now. In fact, he appeared to be glaring at me.
“Senator Saslaw,” I said. “Last year you were quoted as saying, ‘You can’t legislate ethics…”
“That is correct,” Saslaw interjected.
“… either you’re dishonest or not, OK?’ End quote. I hope you have reconsidered that position…”
“I have not,” the Minority Leader responded.
“…The time to get working on improving Virginia’s “F” grade is now.”
Sen. Saslaw, who said he generally did not comment after speakers, declared that in the 38 years he’d been in office, there had been six or seven episodes that had made the newspapers and “none of them involved lobbyists or a campaign contribution.”
I paused, wondering foolishly if his reform-minded colleagues might come to my aide. “May I respond to that?”
“Nope,” he declared.
Not certain I had heard him correctly, I asked, “No? Or Yes?” The Minority Leader repeated that he would not give me permission to respond.
Missing the Point
Sen. Saslaw clearly missed the point. When it came to “effective monitoring of lobbying disclosure requirements,” “ethics enforcement,” or “legislative accountability,” Virginia got straight F grades. No wonder there have been no scandals involving lobbyists or campaign contributions that had made the papers.
I returned to my seat, but before I could sit down, Senator Saslaw bounded up the aisle toward me. He walked up and leaned in within inches of my face. He told me that he had been interviewed by the FBI who told him that the way he handled campaign contributions was not corrupt.
“Senator, from everything I have learned, you are one of Dominion’s biggest apologists,” I said.
He seemed not to understand, so I repeated the word “apologist.” He then explained how he had gotten Virginia Dominion President Robert Blue and a solar chieftain together to try and work out their differences. I countered with the fact that the Sierra Club’s climate and energy scorecard had given Senator Saslaw an overall grade of D, while three Republican delegates received B’s.
“Well,” Senator Saslaw huffed. “Everyone knows they’re crazy!” He invited me to visit him in Richmond, then walked off.
Who is That Guy?
Later, a teenager sat down next to me who was also attending the meeting. He told me he was a Boy Scout, working on his Eagle Scout rank.
“I thought that was really rude how that guy cut you off,” he said. “Who is he?” I explained that he was the Democratic leader in the Virginia state senate. He looked incredulous, shook his head, and walked away.
Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia-based watchdog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.
(* Note: I should have said “largest corporate donor in 2013.” A report of Dominion’s contributions to state politicians in the second half of 2014 was submitted to the State Board of Elections on January 15. Totals for 2014 are not yet available on the VPAP website. )