by Peter Galuszka
Over the past several years, Virginia has seen plenty of high drama and low politics.
There was the tawdry corruption trial of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen. At the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, the school’s popular president, was temporarily ousted in a mysterious coup. Everywhere were unlimited amounts of political money, revolving doors and public benefits for rich individuals and companies.
Taken together, the events might be a tipping point for the Old Dominion, ending, or at least reining in, the so-called “Virginia Way” of lax ethics rules and the assumption that players are honest gentlepeople.
An excellent summation of how and why the stars have so aligned can be found in a new book, “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century, The Price of Power,” by Jeff Thomas (The History Press).Thomas, a Duke University engineering graduate who worked in non-profits in the District, lays out in painstaking detail how largely unregulated money donations have led to an extraordinary web of conflicts of interest. This paradigm has been going on for years and has been largely unquestioned, until now.
Drawn largely from the work of Virginia journalists and political analysts, Thomas finds that:
Thomas Farrell, the head of the power utility Dominion Resources, set up his young son Peter, an “amateur thespian,” to get the Republican nomination to be a delegate from Henrico County. Later, the Farrells used their clout to get more than $1 million in state aid for a Civil War movie they wrote and produced and in which Peter Farrell acted.
Sinecures abound. After he left the state senate in 2013, Henry Marsh, 80, became a part-time board member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control at a salary of $122,000. Del. Bob Brink 66, became a deputy commissioner for aging for $110,000 a year. Del. Algie Howell, 76, got a parole board seat worth $122,455 a year.
McGuireWoods, one of the state’s most prominent and wealthiest law and lobbying outfits, got more than $4.6 million in help from Richmond, otherwise crippled by a 25 percent poverty rate and crumbling school buildings, to build a new headquarters downtown.
The Washington Redskins, the fifth richest team in the National Football League, got $11 million from Richmond to build a summer training camp that the Redskins use only three weeks a year.
The state created a fund, with money from Virginia’s share of a huge health settlement with four large tobacco companies, to help Tobacco Road counties. One of its directors ended up in prison with a 10-year sentence for fraud and self-dealing. Still, the tobacco fund has paid money for new factories in the southern and western parts of the state that haven’t created anywhere close to the number of jobs advertised.
Exhibit A, of course, is the McDonnell case. The couple accepted more than $177,000 in cash, gifts, loans and vacations from vitamin supplement salesman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. The Supreme Court vacated the governor’s convictions, and he and his wife are now free. But their six-week-long trial in 2015 revealed extraordinary conflicts and hubris in the Executive Mansion.
Since then, the state has applied some cosmetic limits on accepting gifts. But donations can run sky high as long as they are reported. Even gift-giving still has plenty of loopholes, provided the giver is a “personal friend.” Travel funded by corporations is okay, too.
Thomas, a native Richmonder, has done Virginia residents a valuable service with his book. The depth of his research is impressive although the text is overly chopped up, making it a more difficult read.
In sum, he writes: “The Virginia Way cannot change as long as politicians’ self-conceptions hinge on their own righteousness, for if there can be no fall, there can be no catharsis.”
This review first appeared in the Washington Post’s “All Opinions Are Local” section.