Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
In an earlier column, I explained why Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s willingness to use a $15,000 gift from a Virginia businessman to pay for food at McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding was a serious lapse of ethical judgment — regardless whether the failure to report that gift violated Virginia’s notoriously lax conflict of interest laws.
Under existing Virginia law, public officials are allowed to accept gifts of any value (even $1 million!), provided only that they disclose gifts valued at more than $50. McDonnell has attempted to defend himself with respect to his failure to disclose the $15,000 gift on the grounds that the gift was to his daughter, not to him.
Little did I realize when I wrote that earlier column that Governor McDonnell and his family also have been guilty of a significant number of other bewildering and inexcusable ethical lapses involving charging Virginia taxpayers for various personal expenses. Those expenses included dog vitamins, sunscreen, body wash, nasal spray, sleep inducing elixirs, and a “digestive system detox cleanse.”
The dollar amounts of money improperly charged to taxpayers for these personal items do not appear to be of the same magnitude as the earlier $15,000 gift, but the insensitive and tone-deaf mindset revealed by these charges is even more troubling.
Regardless whether “it’s against the law,” elected officials have an obligation to set an example for the public by adhering to the highest standards of ethical behavior. They should be asking themselves this question: “if this is made public, what is the average person likely to say?”
If the average person is likely to say the behavior is wrong, then that same person will be justifiably unimpressed by an elected official’s defense that what was done “isn’t illegal in Virginia” or “is okay because the money I received was less than [insert dollar amount that triggers some legal liability.]”
When elected officials are in a position to grant public benefits to a private person or company, they just shouldn’t accept gifts from that person or company beyond some token amount (say, $50 or $100). Nor should they enter into any contractual relationship with that person or company — period.
Just because Virginia law says it’s legal, it doesn’t make it right.
Peter Rousselot is a formermember of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.