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    Editorial | Wednesday, Sep. 10 1 comment
    EDITORIAL: Time to embrace openness and ethics
    In 2012, the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity assessed transparency, accountability and checks-and-balances on government in all 50 states. Eight states received a failing grade. Virginia was one of them.

    The conviction last week of former governor Bob McDonnell on 11 counts of corruption shows the need for Virginia to make the grade. The case demonstrated that it is time to adopt standards for ethics and openness for government across the commonwealth.

    Additionally, disclosures by Leesburg and Loudoun County officials that the people’s business has been decided behind closed doors and that some may have been influenced by political goodwill indicate the need for rules that ensure open government and disclose any potential conflicts of interest.

    Let’s start with the McDonnell case. Despite the commonwealth's reputation as a "good government" state, McDonnell became the first governor in Virginia’s 400-year history to be convicted of corruption. But McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were neither charged nor convicted of violating Virginia law. They were charged under federal law and, prior to the trial, five former Virginia attorneys general considered the charges to be prosecutorial overreach.

    A jury of 12 Virginians grasped what the former Virginia governor and five former AGs missed: It's wrong for a governor and his family to accept loans and gifts from a businessman and then do favors for him.

    The McDonnell verdict served as an object lesson for politicians who think that the basic values of ethics and honesty do not apply to them. While jurors expressed compassion for the former governor and his family, they placed the law and the integrity of the governor’s office above their feelings. At its core, the verdict emphasized the will of citizens for standards of conduct by public officials that are above reproach.

    The need for accountability extends from Richmond to Loudoun County. In recent weeks, public officials have conducted numerous public meetings in private, applying a broad interpretation of executive session rules. Key information has been withheld from citizens, including the names of companies and public officials with a special interest in what should be the transparent, public process of government. Citizens are left to wonder what the real stories are.

    The process has become so disconcerting that three local officials – Leesburg Town Council Member Tom Dunn and county Supervisors Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run) and Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) – have questioned the practice.

    When we stop listening as a body, we get in trouble,” Letourneau said.


    Both Williams and Letourneau should be praised for their candor. Instead, they have been castigated by their colleagues for their disclosures on how county business is conducted, as well as for speaking out.

    Perhaps it's time for the Board of Supervisors to re-implement an ethics pledge the current board threw out upon taking office – a pledge Chairman Scott York (R) said was “all for show.”

    All of this leads back to the rules for conduct, ethics, disclosure and transparency for elected officials at all levels of government in the commonwealth.

    Virginia needs better ones.

    The fact that the McDonnells did not break state law reflects weakness in the commonwealth's efforts to foster ethical conduct by its elected officials. If we believe that those in power should be held to the highest ethical standards, then we should codify our expectations through better disclosure requirements and harsh punishment for officials who betray the public trust.

    Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates Bill Howell have both expressed a need to strengthen the commonwealth's laws. That's a good sign. Gov. McAuliffe

    Tough, new standards are now required. A strong ethical compass by elected officials is the best way to avoid trouble. Virginia can set the tone by enacting stronger laws that place financial limits on gifts to office holders and their families, require broad public disclosure and ensure that meetings are open to all citizens, not just insiders who can exercise their influence. That is the fundamental promise of democracy.

    We cannot legislate morality, but we can enact laws that express our expectations for how elected officials conduct themselves and how they represent the intention of the people throughout the process of governing.
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