- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2014

A $200 leather jacket, an $18,000 Caribbean vacation rental, $350 in hunting gear — just a few of the valuable things given to the governor of Virginia in recent years.

But the items weren’t accepted by Bob McDonnell, whose indictment on federal public corruption charges has renewed attention to the comparatively lax laws over Virginia’s culture of gift-giving. They were made to his predecessors, Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine.

The former Democratic governors accepted thousands of dollars worth of tickets to professional football, basketball, hockey and auto racing events, as well as countless bottles of wine, rounds of golf and an odd assortment of goods that includes a train set, a weed eater, a fishing rod and at least one basket of soft-shelled crabs.

As the public is fast becoming aware, all were permissible under ambiguous state disclosure laws that invite a host of legal and ethical questions around their application.

Even as Mr. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, face 14 federal charges, Richmond’s top prosecutor closed his investigation Monday into whether the Republican former governor violated any state laws when he and his family accepted $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy Virginia businessman.

Mr. McDonnell has said the gifts were motivated by friendship and offered to family members — who, under Virginia law, are not required to disclose them. Prosecutors say they were given in exchange for promoting the product of Mr. Williams’ dietary supplement company.

But anyone can give high-dollar gifts to officeholders or donate as much money as they want to statewide candidates in Virginia — as long as the politician reports it.

In fact, when it comes to political donations, state law encourages it. Unlike federal campaign contributions, Virginia offers a tax break for donations to political candidates in the state. A 2011 study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that in 2008 the credit cost Virginia about $821,000 — a comparatively small amount in a tax code that awards billions of dollars in credits, but a unique benefit nonetheless.

Virginia politicians’ unique ability to police themselves dates back to at least the 19th century.

Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, said the idea of the “Virginia Way” might sound quaint in light of recent events, but it has been a real and palpable badge of honor for the state in the past.

“It really did exist,” he said. “I think some of the current legislators fool themselves into thinking it still does.”

Buried in the financial disclosure forms of more recent governors are clear examples of gifts from interests with business before the state, though there is no indication that they are illegal or even untoward.

Mr. Kaine, for example, reported a $72 multiple sclerosis bicycle ride jersey given to him by the Virginia Credit Union League in May 2008. Mr. Warner reported more than $4,000 in 2004 from tobacco giant Altria for air travel, receptions and dinners.

Mr. Kaine, who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during his final year as governor and afterward before stepping down in 2011 to run for U.S. Senate, also reported nearly $40,000 in airfare from Barack Obama’s campaign committee from January to October 2008.

Even post-Watergate, Mr. Sabato said, Virginia stood alone.

“As far as the Democratic legislature was concerned, that was the Republicans’ problem. Certainly, we didn’t change laws in the wake of [Watergate in] Virginia, at least not substantively,” he said.

State lawmakers are taking a closer look at tightening Virginia’s gift laws this year, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe imposed a $100 gift ban on himself and members of his Cabinet on his first day of office this month.

But no serious proposals to curb the state’s unlimited campaign contributions are under consideration, and many are skeptical that any major changes to the “Virginia Way” can be achieved.

Even after Mr. McDonnell became the first Virginia governor to be criminally charged, the boundaries of the law and its enforcement appear to remain murky for state officials.

In comments to The Washington Post regarding his decision to close the investigation into whether Mr. McDonnell violated state law by failing to properly disclose gifts from Mr. Williams, Mr. Herring, a Democrat, stopped short of saying definitively that he thought Mr. McDonnell had committed any violation.

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, Fairfax Democrat, was rebuked after excoriating the legislature last week for failing to provide oversight when it had the chance. He said the McDonnell indictment represented an “institutional failure” on the part of the state House and Senate.

“This represents an institutional failure by the legislative body in this commonwealth,” he said. “We did nothing. We did nothing to follow up on this situation. In fact, we let the governor’s personal chef be our one-man ethics department. And, frankly, that’s pathetic.”

Senate Republican leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. of James City County — a 22-year veteran of the body — rose to object.

“To suggest that there is some kind of collective indictment against us as a body, I just take exceptional umbrage against,” he said.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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