Keep politicians away from ethics commission, law expert says
ETHICS REFORM? Paul Reagan, chief of staff, is at the center of Virginia’s latest ethical scandal.
By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Richard Kelsey, an assistant dean at George Mason University School of Law, wasn’t caught off guard when he read the Washington Post report that Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s chief of staff offered a job to then-state Sen. Phil Puckett’s daughter if the lawmaker stayed in office to keep Democratic control of the Senate.
“You know it wasn’t a surprise to me and that’s the disappointing part,” Kelsey, a former law clerk for the Circuit Court Judges of Arlington County, told Watchdog.org.
“Virginians are finally seeing how the levers of government are being used by both parties to serve the parties and not the people,” Kelsey said.
That’s why he said it’s a terrible idea for current and former politicians to be the ones spearheading the new Governor’s Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government McAuliffe announced at the end of September, days before the story broke about chief of staff Paul Reagan.
Democrats and Republicans, he said, are equally responsible for undermining Virginians’ trust in their political system.
During the past year, revelations of questionable insider dealings among Virginia’s top officials — from the conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife over gifts from businessman Jonnie Williams, to reports that Virginia Republicans offered Puckett and his daughter jobs if the senator left office — are only publicly revealing what Kelsey said he already knew about the natural tendencies of politicians when left to their own devices.
What’s even more troubling, Kelsey said, is that some politicians have simply touted these sort of political favors as the status quo.
McDonnell’s defense in his federal corruption trial was that he did nothing out of the ordinary or contrary to Virginia law. When the first stories about Puckett’s resignation and job offers circulated, some Republicans like Speaker of the House Bill Howell said offering state jobs to retiring lawmakers is business as usual.
There is an ongoing federal investigation into Puckett’s resignation and the surrounding circumstances.
“They all kind of pooh-pooh it as ‘hey, what’s the big deal?’ 0r, ‘both parties do this,’” Kelsey said.
And that just illustrates the problem, Kelsey said.
“Unfortunately, this comes under the category of political entitlement,” Kelsey said. “Politicians are always talking about entitlement and entitlement reform, but they believe they’re allowed to use the levers of government and power to accomplish their goals.”
Some may call Reagan’s words to Puckett just the “spoils of victory,” Kelsey said.
“Most Americans consider that to be a bribe,” Kelsey said.
McAuliffe has since said he is “disappointed” in his top aide.
The job offers from Republicans and Democrats alike, however, undermine confidence in the appointed public employees running the state.
“You hope that these people are qualified,” he said.
McAuliffe, who campaigned on ethics reform in last year’s gubernatorial race, filled the seats of the state’s new ethics commission with nearly all current or former politicians.
Commission members include Rich Boucher, who served in the state Senate for seven years and in the U.S. House of Representatives for 28 years; Bill Bolling, a former two-term lieutenant governor and 10-year state Senate member; Viola Baskerville, a former state delegate; Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; John Casteen, president of the University of Virginia and former Virginia secretary of education; Susan Magill, former chief of staff to Sen. John Warner for more than 20 years; Courtney Malveaux, immediate past president of the National Association of Government Labor officials and former assistant attorney general; and Joe May, a former longtime state delegate.
Only two of the 10 members have no direct ties to political offices.
Kelsey said it’s absurd to think politicians are going to reform Virginia’s broken ethics system.
“How about an ethical reform panel that didn’t have former legislators and elected officials?” said Kelsey, “instead of asking those people to regulate themselves.”
“If there’s one thing Americans can do without, whether they’re Virginians or anything else, is a blue-ribbon panel of former politicians who didn’t do their job now being asked to do a different job.”
— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached on Twitter @kathrynw5.