Make ‘em take the pledge: no more snuff boxes!


I got in touch with my delegate to the Virginia General Assembly a short while back, to ask about the money. I was told he was on vacation, and I'm sure he needed a rest. The legislature had just downed tools and dispersed, after its season of public service.

But I didn't get a call when he returned to Richmond, either. That's okay, I think I get it: Jimmie Massie, a Republican, has since announced that he won't stand for re-election in the 72nd District in November.

That money question I had in mind is still unanswered, though, for you and me both, wherever you live and whether you're conservative, libertarian or liberal. It's this: can your legislator explain why it's okay to accept campaign cash from Dominion Energy, our state-regulated electric power monopoly, and still cast votes on Dominion-related legislation? During his ten years in the General Assembly Massie took $23,500 from Dominion, according to the non-profit, non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project. Dominion was his top donor, other than himself.

The Democratic candidate for Massie's seat, Schuyler van Valkenburg, has said he'll decline any donation from Dominion. Conflict of interest could be an incendiary issue for Democrats to grab onto – and that would suit my politics – but for now, most of them will burn their hands if they reach for it. Though Republicans have taken in more money from Dominion over all, most legislators in both parties have found the handouts deeply agreeable. The champion is Northern Virginia's Democratic Sen. Richard Saslaw. His ledgers show about $300,000 from the power company during his 20-year Senate career.

Dominion has given just over $10 million to legislators of both parties in the past decade – $670,000 in 2016 alone. It is Virginia's top corporate donor. Meanwhile, those same public servants who took Dominion's money have voted on countless Dominion-related bills, listened to the pitches of the sturdy corps of Dominion lobbyists, and then handed the company a lengthening series of legislative home runs worth hundreds of millions of dollars – perhaps a billion or two by some estimates.

You can't prove a connection, and neither can I. We don't have to, to be justly outraged, and this is not a partisan issue. The appearance of conflict alone compromises our trust.

Your government's yours, not Dominion's. So ask each of your legislators this: Will you pledge to reject Dominion campaign cash from now on? If you think it's okay to accept those donations, will you pledge to abstain from voting on legislation involving Dominion? If not, what is your reasoning? Get them on the record either way, and let us all know.

Dominion's largesse is an especially grievous example of the larger problem of corporate campaign donations – a legalized form of corruption. It is breathakingly corrupt here in Virginia, because our legislators are allowed to use the money for personal expenses. The Associated Press has reported that Chesapeake Democrat Del. Lionell Spruill "spent $300,000 from his campaign account on a membership in a private business club, meals at Ruth's Chris steakhouses around the country, and more than $2,000 at high-end Richmond restaurants during legislative sessions. More than 90 percent of the money Spruill raised came from corporations, trade organizations or special interest groups." And that's just one example.

“All Americans should be alarmed about the effects of money in politics. But it is conservatives who should be leading the fight for campaign-finance reform,” Richard Painter of the University of Minnesota Law School has written. “Why should conservative voters care? First, big money in politics encourages big government. . . . When politicians are dependent on campaign money from contractors and lobbyists, they’re incapable of holding spending programs to account.”

Campaign contributions also breed more regulation, Painter argues. Companies in heavily regulated industries such as banking, health care, and energy are among the largest contributors to push for regulations that freeze out competition. That is happening with Dominion Energy's freeze-out of competition from alternative energy firms, especially solar power, today.

Barry Goldwater, an Arizona senator for 30 years and a Republican presidential candidate in 1964, said, “Senators and representatives, faced incessantly with the need to raise ever more funds . . . can scarcely avoid weighing every decision against the question, ‘How will this affect my fund-raising?'" If nothing else, politicians who grovel for special-interest money tend to disgust the public, he said.

Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout has traced the halting development of our national outlook on what is and is not corrupt back to a time just after the American Revolution. It was a central preoccupation of the new republic then, when an embarrassed Benjamin Franklin decided to relinquish to Congress a diamond-studded snuff box, a bauble from the king of France. He did so after an outcry about how poorly the gift reflected on the integrity of his public service as ambassador.

It wasn’t just the possibility that Louis XVI might have deflected Franklin’s focus on the United States’ best interests. How could we know that, one way or the other?

The problem instead was the appearance of the act, which is, in other than exceptional cases, all the public can go by, in judging the honesty and integrity of an officeholder. Accepting gifts like corporate campaign donations opens the possibility of a conflict of interest, of divided loyalty, of trying to serve two masters. That is visible now, on an epic scale, in the carnival of conflicts that is the Trump White House.

During Franklin’s time and until fairly recently, campaign donations were considered to be close kin to bribes, and to accept them was to risk being seen as corrupt.

That is why so many kinds of private employment have rules against taking gifts from interested parties. Here's a local and typical newspaper's code of ethics, the kind of discretion I'm sure the Henrico Citizen also observes: "Reporters should not hold stock or otherwise invest in areas they routinely cover. Editors also should disqualify themselves from handling stories on matters about which they or a family member has or may be viewed as having a personal or pecuniary interest. News employees should not have business relationships with news sources...News employees may not accept gifts or services of more than nominal value from news sources and contacts, public relations and advertising firms, or event sponsors." ("Nominal value" usually means something on the scale of a cup of coffee, or a pen.)

Just now in Virginia's history, Dominion Energy has assumed the role of Louis XVI in its gifts -- to all appearances richly rewarded – as our legislators play Franklin. It was public opinion that forced Ben to relinquish his opulent snuff box, in the interest of his own integrity and that of the government he served. Now would be a great time to make that happen again, here.

* * *

Stephen Nash is the author of Virginia Climate Fever — How Climate Change Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests, as well as the forthcoming Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands and Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change. He supports the Van Valkenburg campaign.
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