Virginia's Ethics Laws Have No Teeth

By Gibson, Bob | The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA), September 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

Virginia's Ethics Laws Have No Teeth


Gibson, Bob, The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA)


Virginia's political scandals come at longer intervals than corruption busts in other states.

Perhaps our politics are cleaner than most and, just as true, perhaps ethics laws are harder to break when the sky is the limit for many gifts and the self-reporting process is a bit vague and infrequent.

It should not take a federal prosecutor, judge and jury to define corruption in Virginia, but recently that has been the case, which may prompt state lawmakers to pass some new ethics laws with teeth.

Clearly the gap between national anti-corruption laws and Virginia's laissez-faire standards of "let them police themselves, self-report a little once in a while, and hope for the best" needs to be closed.

Consider the following ethical lapses of the 1980s and the past decade.

Norfolk state Sen. Peter Babalas in 1986 became the first member of the General Assembly to be censured by his colleagues for unethical conduct. Senators found he violated conflict-of-interest law by casting votes that benefitted a client, a second-mortgage company represented by his law firm.

The censure carried no penalty. Babalas, the third most senior senator at the time, voluntarily stepped down from a powerful committee chairmanship. His punishment consisted of a toothless censure vote and some bad headlines.

Phil Hamilton, a Newport News delegate from 1988 to 2009, was also a senior legislator whose votes and phone calls were found to feather his own nest.

Hamilton was convicted in federal court in 2009 of bribery and extortion for soliciting Old Dominion University for a paid position in exchange for a budget amendment funding the $40,000-a- year job. In 2011, he began serving a 9 1/2 year federal prison sentence.

The two senior lawmakers were seen by many as outliers, unusual specimens whose excessive featherings of their own nests somehow made them slightly odd ducks not flying right with the flocks of regular fowl.

Then came gift-gate involving $177,000 in gifts to Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife and family, all given by a wealthy businessman seeking state actions to benefit his dietary supplement company.

McDonnell, a Virginia Beach delegate for 14 years before becoming attorney general in 2006 and governor in 2010, shocked many in Virginia and beyond by becoming the state's first governor to face a federal prison sentence. …

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