- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Got $50,000? Then you, too, can attend a “private evening reception” with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who wasted little time after Virginia’s General Assembly session gaveled to a close to launch a political action committee that offers such meetings with the governor in exchange for high-end donations.

Such arrangements are commonplace, and the practice of Virginia governors creating their own fundraising PACs dates back 20 years. But the move was made after a legislative session in which reducing the influence of money in politics was one of the top priorities for a governor who drew up plans to rent out the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton administration.

“It’s not uncommon to have that kind of arrangement,” said Brad Smith, chairman of the Federal Election Commission during the George W. Bush administration. “Virginia is certainly unusual because there are no campaign finance limits. … A lot of people are going to feel a little uncomfortable with that.”

Mr. McAuliffe’s Common Good VA PAC aims “to support like-minded candidates who are dedicated to bringing progressive values to their communities, as well as issues that are in line with our top priorities,” according to an e-mail announcing the PAC on Monday.

According to a 2014 event schedule accompanying one of the e-mails, high-end donors can get near-exclusive access to the longtime Clinton fundraiser who collected and spent nearly $40 million in the 2013 governor’s race — almost twice as much as his Republican opponent and by far the most of any gubernatorial candidate in the state’s history.

For $10,000, donors get entry into the Colonial Circle, which entitles them to a ticket to a PAC retreat in early April, a roundtable discussion with Mr. McAuliffe during the summer, a McAuliffe-hosted retreat for the Democratic Governors Association in the fall, and entry for one to a monthly roundtable discussion with “policy experts.”

The benefits ratchet up at $25,000 — the Old Dominion Circle — and $50,000 — the Virginia Circle.

A $100,000 membership in the Governor’s Circle, also entitles donors to two tickets apiece to private spring and fall receptions hosted by Mr. McAuliffe and first lady Dorothy McAuliffe.

Neither Mr. McAuliffe’s office nor Common Good VA responded to multiple requests for comment Tuesday.

The specific breakdowns of the PAC’s contribution levels and benefits were first reported in a column in The Washington Post by Norm Leahy, who blogs at the conservative website Bearing Drift, and Paul Goldman, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Republican lawmakers were quick to attack Mr. McAuliffe over the PAC. The GOP majority in the House of Delegates tried to extend the 60-day legislative session for 30 days after lawmakers failed to pass the state’s two-year budget amid a partisan dispute about expanding Medicaid.

Mr. McAuliffe instead called the General Assembly into a special session set to begin Monday, during which a prohibition on fundraising by lawmakers will not apply as it would if the regular session continued.

“Governor McAuliffe called the good-faith effort of House Republican leaders a gimmick, but with [the] announcement of his new political action committee, it’s clear why he wanted a special session,” House Republican leaders said in a statement.

Since the administration of Gov. George Allen, a Republican, members of both parties have used the fundraising mechanisms to dole out cash to their respective state parties and the campaigns of candidates for state and local offices. But the role of money in politics hovered in the background of the 2014 legislative session after federal prosecutors accused former Gov. Bob McDonnell of trading access to the governor’s mansion for loans and gifts from a wealthy businessman.

“These donor rewards programs got a little out of hand with McDonnell but are as old as the hills, and this is the dance that people play in Washington and state capitals across the country,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.

Mr. McAuliffe, immediately upon taking office, imposed a ban on himself and his family from accepting gifts more expensive than $100, and the legislature passed some of its own restrictions, notably limiting annual gifts from lobbyists or people with state business to $250.

Left untouched, however, were the state’s notoriously lax campaign finance laws, which allow unlimited donations to political candidates and political action committees as long as the donors are disclosed.

Ms. Krumholz said it’s up to a vigilant public to at least try to hold politicians and interest groups accountable.

“If it’s not illegal, then why should we be surprised if corporate or labor interests do it?” she said. “These are smart, savvy people who earn a lot of money and they know how to navigate the halls of power to get what they want and they know, pretty much, where that line is. Not only where the legal line is, but also kind of where the societal line is in terms of propriety. It’s the job of any influence broker.”

But ethics reform remains a sensitive subject in Virginia, where lawmakers pride themselves on their history and their gentility.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, wagged his finger at politicians on the other side of the Potomac this month, saying at a public meeting in Alexandria that there has been no shortage of ethical lapses in recent years in the District and Maryland, which have significantly stricter contribution limits compared with Virginia.

Most notably, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray — whom Mr. Saslaw described as “up to his ass in alligators” — has been implicated in a “shadow campaign” run on behalf of his 2010 mayoral bid by businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson, who last week pleaded guilty in connection with that effort.

“I mean, hell, we’ve got laws on the books — bank robbery, murder, armed robbery, embezzlement — and people still do it,” he said. “Why? Because something goes wrong in their lives and they don’t know the difference between right and wrong.”

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

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