By Carten Cordell │ Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe is recycling an old campaign tune from four years ago, calling for an independent ethics commission.
The original call for the ethics commission came in 2009 from then candidate Bob McDonnell, who laid out an ambitious reform agenda that included creating the state’s first ethics commission and establishing a state inspector general to investigate waste, fraud and abuse in the government.
Virginia Tech political science professor Craig Brians said McAuliffe’s move may be a tactical campaign maneuver to capitalize on a disclosure scandal engulfing McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee.
The governor reportedly failed to disclose a gift from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams and Cuccinelli reportedly failed to report stock holdings and gifts from Star Scientific. The FBI announced this week it was investigating McDonnell’s ties to Star Scientific.
McAuliffe “kind of has to do this,” Brians said.
“That is the position of the challenger when two members of the opposing party seem to be in some sort of, at least alleged, hot water.”
Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix said the OSIG provides an adequate structure for ethical oversight and is a stronger alternative than what McAuliffe is proposing.
“As Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli has taken numerous steps toward a more ethical and transparent government, including setting up the Inspector General’s office to investigate fraud, waste and abuse and putting the Office of the Attorney General’s budget online for public view,” Nix said in an email statement. “Virginians don’t need an ethics lesson from Terry McAuliffe considering he played a major role in a contribution swap scheme with the Teamsters that resulted in four convictions and was deposed about his role in selling access to the Lincoln Bedroom. This is just another example of Terry McAuliffe having no shame and attempting to insult the intelligence of Virginia voters.”
The allegations mentioned by Nix refer to a 1999 case where a witness testified that McAuliffe, a chief Democratic fundraiser for the Clinton-Gore campaign, played “a major role” in an illegal campaign contribution swap between the Democratic National Committee and Teamster president Ron Carey. McAuliffe was never charged in that case. The “Lincoln Bedroom” reference dates back to 1997, when the Clinton administration was accused of “selling” stay-overs in the Lincoln Bedroom to big-time political contributors.
Requests for comment from the McAuliffe campaign were not returned by publication.
Two years after pledging to create an ethics board, the plan was cast aside because of constitutional and agency turf wars, leaving a fledgling state Office of Inspector General charged with investigating government, but not its elected officials.
“Rather than duplicating work and missions, the role of the ethics commission is being handled through the inspector general’s office,” McDonnell spokesman Paul Logan said in an email to Watchdog.org. “The governor’s goal is to ensure that ethical violations are investigated and addressed.”
But Delegate Steven Landes, R-Albemarle, who helped sponsor the legislation to create the Office of the State Inspector General during the 2011 General Assembly, said the decision to forego the ethics commission was made largely because it could violate the constitutionally-established checks and balances of the state government.
“The executive branch and the legislative branch are obviously independent from each other and constitutionally, the separation of powers makes that very clear,” he said.
“Mr. McAuliffe’s idea gave me pause. He would have an ethics commission that would be representative of judicial, legislative and executive branch. I think that would be contrary to the state constitution and the separation of powers. The executive branch cannot tell the Legislature how to police its members.”
Both the House of Delegates and the Senate have ethics panels to investigate alleged wrong-doing in their own chambers, so the OSIG was established to monitor the executive branch, government agencies and non-government agencies, like universities.
But the office does not have the power to investigate elected officials, unless requested to do so by the governor, attorney general or a grand jury. The lead agency tasked with criminal investigations of elected officials is the Virginia State Police, which also requires a request from the governor, attorney general or a grand jury.
“With regard to executive branch entity and agency heads and below, yes, I do have authority (to investigate),” said state Inspector General Michael Morehart. “It depends upon the circumstances. It might be a partnership-type investigation with VSP or Capitol Police, which I am not opposed to. With regard to the executive branch, we are, for a lack of a better term, a watchdog.”
The OSIG oversees performance reviews to promote efficiency in the government, internal audits oversight and the investigation of waste, fraud, abuse and criminal activity within state agencies. That, however, does not reach to executive officers, like the governor.
Logan, McDonnell’s spokesman, said the elected-official limitation “deals specifically with criminal investigations and preserves the existing criminal investigation and prosecution system.”
“That section does not preclude an investigation as to whether fraud, abuse, or ethical violations are taking place,” he said.
Email Carten Cordell at [email protected]