Virginia long claimed it had an ethical political culture based on a tradition of civic service, genial debate, and gentlemanly behavior – until events proved otherwise in 2014. That’s when the conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell on federal corruption charges rocked Old Dominion politics.
Evidence presented in court showed that McDonnell and his family accepted $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, the then-CEO of a tobacco-turned-health-supplement company. At the time, neither the loans nor the gifts — rounds at a tony golf club, a $20,000 New York shopping spree for his wife, Maureen McDonnell, and a Rolex watch for the governor — were barred under state law. Virginia allowed unlimited gifts to its politicians, but required their disclosure.
McDonnell did not report most of Williams’ largesse, however, initially claiming they were exempt because the CEO was a close family friend and the gifts were primarily to his family. In the end, McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison on 11 counts of public corruption, although his case is still working its way through the appellate courts.
The state legislature responded in March 2014 by passing the first limits on gifts for politicians and their family members. It created a new ethics council to collect and publish disclosure forms for all branches of government.
In April, the gift limits were lowered to $100, a change sought by McDonnell’s successor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe; the new limits will go into effect in January. “We took an important step forward to strengthen the ethics legislation that was passed last year by further increasing transparency and accountability,” McAuliffe said in a statement August 31.
These improvements to ethics laws and oversight played a part in Virginia earning a score of 66, ranking it 16th in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.