This op-ed originally appeared in the Virginian-Pilot and PilotOnline.com.
By Scott Peterson
© December 21, 2014
For years, Virginians had confidence that their state government was run efficiently and well – at least compared to other states. “The Virginia Way” set us apart from other states with seemingly incorrigible corruption in their capitols.
All that has changed recently with a series of events that is deeply shaking public confidence.
It is not just the dramatic corruption conviction of once-popular former Gov. Bob McDonnell, but a series of ugly disclosures that have changed how we think business is done in Richmond.
There was the CONSOL Energy scandal in which an assistant attorney general provided legal advice to help an out-of-state energy company to fight Virginia landowners who were owed millions for gas extraction. There was the federal probe into offers of jobs to then-Sen. Phil Puckett and his daughter if the senator resigned his seat – thus changing partisan control of the Senate.
The State Integrity Investigation ranked Virginia 47th out of 50 states on its Corruption Risk Report Card.
This month’s scandal is news that the Virginia Tobacco Commission gave $30 million to a partner of Dominion Resources Inc., to construct a natural gas pipeline to a new $1.3 billion natural gas-fired power plant Dominion is building in Brunswick County. The commission’s staff recommended $6.5 million. Dominion is listed as a beneficiary on the Tobacco Commission grant application and is co-signer of the contract.
How was the grant increased by $23.5 million to benefit Dominion – one of the richest and most politically well-connected corporations in Richmond?
According to a draft report by the state Inspector General’s office obtained by The Associated Press, Tobacco Commission staffers said there was pressure from McDonnell’s office to boost the award. But McDonnell’s lawyers said he did not lobby the Tobacco Commission. Dominion said it didn’t, either. Hmmm.
The Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission was established in 1998 when Virginia received its portion of a settlement with 46 states and the four largest tobacco companies. Forty percent went to the General Fund and 10 percent to reduce tobacco use and obesity. The rest of the money was put into a $1 billion endowment fund run by the Tobacco Commission to generate cash for community revitalization grants in Southwest and Southside Virginia.
The Tobacco Commission’s chair is Terry Kilgore, a powerful Republican delegate from Virginia’s far southwestern corner. With $122,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion, Kilgore received more money from Dominion than any member of the House of Delegates. Terry’s twin brother, Jerry Kilgore, a former Virginia attorney general and GOP nominee for governor, is a partner with Dominion’s Richmond law firm, McGuireWoods.
So far this year, Dominion is the largest donor to state-level politicians, operating three different accounts, with over $1.3 million in contributions. Dominion has donated more than $9 million over the years to Virginia Democrats and Republicans.
The Virginia Way was fundamentally a public trust that our elected officials would not behave like those in other states. Though that trust has been severely injured, we cannot give up trying to restore it. We can and should demand that steps be taken to make this situation right.
Dominion and its pipeline partner, Transco, a subsidiary of the Houston, Texas-based The Williams Companies, must give back the money. They don’t need what is essentially a welfare check to continue eroding public confidence.
The General Assembly should pass a law that restricts members from accepting any political contributions from organizations and corporations with legislation pending before the legislature. The $100 cap on gifts that Republicans and Democrats are proposing is not enough.
Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw – no stranger to money from Dominion – said last year, “You can’t legislate ethics… either you’re dishonest or you’re not, OK?” Saslaw is wrong that Virginia doesn’t need strong ethics laws, but in one sense he was right. Either Virginia is going to decide to be an honest place to govern, live and do business, or it’s not. It’s time for all of us to decide if The Virginia Way can be saved.
Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia-based watchdog that holds government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public.