Howell & Norment Op-Ed on Ethics


Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The citizens of Virginia have many reasons to be proud. Our economy faces obstacles but is poised for growth, our citizens have opportunities to succeed and prosper, and we live in a beautiful state with a rich history, proud traditions and a once-long-standing reputation for clean and honest government.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s reputation has been tainted. The events of the past 18 months have been a painful ordeal for all who care about Virginia.

What some consider commonplace in other states and what has long been thought impossible here in the commonwealth has caused citizens to question the integrity of their elected leaders. The public’s confidence and trust in state government have been shaken.

That is unacceptable.

Each and every elected official takes an oath to faithfully and impartially discharge the duties incumbent upon their office. This oath is a solemn vow that transcends party labels and ideologies.

Implicit in that oath is a commitment to honesty and integrity. Public service requires loyalty — not to a party or an ideology, but to those we serve. Public service also requires sacrifice. While that sacrifice is often measured in time away from family, it is more than that. It is an unconditional and unequivocal promise to place the best interests of the commonwealth before oneself.

Public trust and the integrity of elected leaders are essential to the success of representative democracy. When the public loses confidence in those processes and those entrusted with significant responsibility and power, the system can crumble.

In March, the General Assembly enacted legislation that placed stricter limits on gifts, strengthened disclosure requirements, increased oversight by creating an independent advisory council and mandated ethics training for elected officials.

These reforms increased transparency, so that the people of Virginia would have a complete and clear understanding of the financial interests of the lawmakers entrusted to serve them. They also promoted accountability, so that elected officials would face consequences when intentionally or unintentionally ignoring the law.

Altogether, these reforms were intended to help restore the public’s trust and confidence in state government.

With last Thursday’s verdict, the need to restore the public’s confidence has increased exponentially. Although the reforms enacted earlier this year were meaningful and substantive, and were approved without a single dissenting vote in both chambers and in both parties, they are no longer sufficient in meeting the expectations of the people of Virginia. A higher standard having been set, we must meet it.

With that in mind, and as leaders of the majority party in the House and Senate, we pledge today to the people of Virginia to take the additional steps necessary to rebuild the trust and confidence we ask of you.

Over the next four months, as we prepare for the 2015 General Assembly session, we will re-examine every aspect of our ethics, transparency and disclosure laws. We will build on the steps taken during this year’s session and seek to enact reforms that are stronger and more stringent.

Where questions arise, we will provide answers. Where mistakes are identified, we will provide fixes. Where loopholes exist, we will close them. Simply put, where action is needed, we will act.

This means looking at gifts, travel and other favors, and making clear determinations on what is acceptable and unacceptable. It means rigorously scrutinizing our transparency, disclosure and reporting requirements, and making clear determinations on the public’s right to know. It means implementing a system of accountability that ensures compliance and deals appropriately with violations.

It is also imperative that our actions do not discourage public service or simply drive bad behavior into dark corners. Like all legislation, there is a balance to be found in the specific proposals that will eventually emerge. But, that balance must tilt decisively toward the people of Virginia and ensuring their trust.

It bears repeating that faith in government and trust in those who serve are essential to the success and endurance of representative democracy. We are committed to working across the aisle and hope that the significance of this issue will inhibit the all-too-common partisan nature of our political debates. There is simply too much at stake for demagoguery and partisanship. The responsibility to restore faith in state government rests equally with the General Assembly and the governor, with Democrats and Republicans.

The challenge is clear. We embark on this mission with a sense of purpose and with deep humility. Together, we are committed to giving Virginians the government they deserve.