By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
RICHMOND, Va. – The Democratic lawmaker who threatened a technology group that had endorsed Republican Ken Cuccinelli for governor says she has been asked to head up Senate ethics.
Amid a growing push for Virginia ethics reform, and Democrats’ possible takeover of the Senate, Sen. Janet Howell is in line to chair the Privileges and Elections Committee, where ethics bills would be referred, said Howell’s legislative aide, Karol Straub.
“We have to beef (ethics) up in Virginia,” Howell, of Fairfax, was quoted as saying in the online news site, Reston Now. “We have found out the hard way you just can’t trust people.”
Howell herself came under fire last fall when she warned the Northern Virginia Technology Council PAC that “the ramifications of (Cuccinelli) being endorsed will be huge within the Senate Democratic caucus.
“The response (from legislators) will be frigid and doors will be closed (when the council seeks help with its legislative agenda). Achieving the goals of NVTC will be difficult to impossible,” Howell stated in an email.
Ron Meyer, a former state Senate candidate from Northern Virginia, questioned Howell’s suitability.
“Sen. Howell’s history of bullying business leaders in Northern Virginia isn’t a good resumé to chair any committee regarding ethics. Virginia needs serious ethics reform — but we could use a few more ethical legislators first,” the Republican told Watchdog.org.
The Senate currently has no designated ethics committee or subcommittee. The Privileges and Elections Committee is now chaired by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg.
Sen. Tom Garrett, R-Louisa, has filed two bills barring state officials — elected and unelected — from using their office to retaliate against Virginians who disagree with their views.
“(Lawmakers) don’t have special privileges just because they’ve been elected,” said Garrett, a former commonwealth attorney who also serves on Privileges and Elections.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch, in an editorial on Friday, agreed, saying Howell’s threats “border on extortion.”
The editorial said Garrett’s bill “merits passage.”
Meantime, Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen of Fairfax unveiled a package of ethics proposals that includes the establishment of a state ethics commission.
Petersen said the commission “will be able to make recommendations for disciplinary proceedings against legislators found in violation of disclosure laws to their respective house, where members will vote on any disciplinary action.”
Three other Petersen-patroned measures would impose contribution and gift limits, ban use of private law firms for state business and end legislative exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act. (See Petersen’s blog here.)
On Monday, outgoing Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling renewed his call for ethics reform, including limits on gifts to elected officials and fuller disclosure of gifts to family members.
Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, made similar proposals during his campaign while criticizing the acceptance of gifts by GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Cuccinelli. McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy did not respond to a request for further comment.
State Sen. Dick Saslaw, the Senate’s Democratic leader, who, along with Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, echoed Howell’s shot at the NoVa Tech PAC, did not reply to Watchdog’s phone message and email.
With incoming Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam becoming Senate president, Democrats would assume effective control of the body if they win both special elections scheduled this month.
Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward