Virginia’s lax ethics laws legalize corruption. Will the GOP ever stop blocking reform?

By Editorial Board

Oct. 12, 2019 at 4:48 p.m. EDT

IN MARYLAND, a veteran lawmaker has been charged with using campaign funds to cover her personal expenses. She faces the possibility of years behind bars. In Virginia, her underlying offense would be no offense at all. In fact, it is perfectly legal to use campaign accounts for personal expenses in the Old Dominion, thanks to a Republican-controlled legislature that has refused repeated attempts at reform.

The Maryland case concerns Tawanna P. Gaines, a Prince George’s County Democrat, who is accused of shifting $22,000 to her personal use from contributions solicited for her campaign account. After resigning from the House of Delegates this month, she was charged with federal wire fraud arising from a scheme that involved diverting campaign donations to a personal PayPal account that she did not disclose in state filings.

No such chicanery would be required in Virginia, among the only states in the nation that allow lawmakers to help themselves to campaign funds for virtually any purpose. Groceries, gasoline, nail salons, a night at the ballet, a Hawaiian vacation, even a child’s college tuition and fees — all are permissible expenditures using funds donated to a lawmaker’s campaign.

A bipartisan state ethics commission recommended plugging that gap in Virginia’s lax laws in 2015, but legislation to do just that has failed every year since, owing mainly to GOP intransigence. As a result corporations, lobbyists, trade groups, unions and other special interests may line the pockets of their favorite legislators, some of whom face little or no electoral competition and therefore enjoy free rein to use contributions as a slush fund. In effect, special interests might just as well slip their cash directly into candidates’ pockets.

Republicans argue that tightening the law on use of campaign funds is unneeded because lawmakers are unlikely to risk the wrath of donors by abusing their campaign accounts. In fact, there are examples of both Republicans and Democrats using campaign funds to cover personal items — Del. Timothy M. Hugo (R-Fairfax) and state Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake) have been prominent abusers. The fact that campaign spending is not audited by the State Board of Elections also enables consequence-free abuse.

Some GOP lawmakers have tried to justify the status quo by saying a legislative fix is too complicated: What about a candidate who shares leftover doughnuts with his family after buying them for a campaign event? In fact, other states, as well as the federal government, have reasonable and enforceable laws to prevent the personal use of money intended for spending on campaigns. Virginia could easily do so if and when Republicans abandon their fealty to what amounts to legal corruption.