Virginia among the worst states in the union in terms of ethics and transparency: The Coalition for Integrity’s S.W.A.M.P. Index casts spotlight on state’s poor record fighting corruption.
For decades, Transparency International has rated governments worldwide on their ethics, transparency, and anti-corruption regimes. Shruti Shah, the President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity (formerly known as Transparency International — USA) said her organization would flag countries like Nigeria or India for not having laws in place and say that was terrible. But when they analyzed U.S. results, Shah stated “it was ironic, we were actually quite shocked at what we found. States didn’t do very well at all…and Virginia in particular.”
While Shah didn’t expect Virginia to come out really strong on ethics, especially after having witnessed former Governor Robert McDonnell’s prosecution on corruption charges, she was surprised to learn that Virginia scored so poorly — only 35 out of one hundred, ranking in the bottom 10 percent of all states, the lowest category possible.
The Coalition for Integrity released the S.W.A.M.P. (States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials) Index in 2018, ranking all 50 states and the District of Columbia on laws regarding the establishment and scope of ethics agencies, the powers of those agencies, acceptance and disclosure of gifts by public officials, transparency of funding independent expenditures and client disclosure by legislators.
Virginia is one of only four states with no limits on campaign contributions and no restrictions on politicians or their relatives spending funds from political action committees for personal expenses.
One key Virginia finding in the S.W.A.M.P. Index was that the state’s three ethics agencies had no enforcement powers. Virginia improved its ethics laws with respect to gifts following the troubles of Governor Robert McDonnell but has done nothing to address the lack of enforcement power of its ethics agencies. Shah stressed how important it is for state ethics agencies to have the power to independently investigate, hold public hearings, and issue subpoenas, reprimands, and fines. She said “a toothless ethics agency cannot serve the public well and will be unable to effectively carry out its mission.”
Having previously worked for over a decade with Big 4 accounting firms in the U.S., the U.K., and India, Shah’s experience is extensive, particularly in anti-bribery compliance and anti-corruption issues. A resident of Arlington, Virginia, Shah has a personal stake in the state’s ethics deficiencies. She strongly believes “addressing ethics, transparency, and anti-corruption underpins solving every issue that matters to you: whether its gun control, climate change, healthcare, or the quality of your children’s education.”
Shah and the Coalition decided to tackle ethics issues in Virginia by launching the Virginia Integrity Challenge, asking candidates to make personal, campaign finance, and gift disclosures easily accessible on their websites, and support legislation to give enforcement power to Virginia’s ethics agencies. In 2017, 19 candidates (Republicans, Democrats, and Independents) accepted the challenge and last year 25 candidates did so, 11 of whom were elected.
The next step according to Shah is to work with a champion to enact legislation giving Virginia’s ethics agencies real enforcement power. Shah is emphatic that “we will not get stronger accountability, or stronger transparency or ethics in Virginia until we demand it. I think it’s up to each constituent in Virginia to make their priorities clear to the candidates. If you haven’t engaged with your candidates, please do so.” This is particularly important given the legislature’s lack of any concrete action to date to remedy the situation. The various campaign finance bills introduced in the past session of the General Assembly (including banning donations from public service corporations like Dominion Energy) were all defeated, as were 10 such bills during the 2019 session.
The S.W.A.M.P. Index can put pressure on states with poor records as well as document the positive measures that the leading states have taken. Shah said that no state is perfect, and there’s always room for reform. But you can look at states like California and Washington which are usually around the top of these rankings. New Mexico is a recent example of a state that was at the bottom along with Virginia and did not have an ethics agency. In 2018, New Mexico passed a constitutional amendment to create an ethics agency and implementing legislation was adopted last year. In the span of a very short time, New Mexico took concrete action because the voters, journalists and the media took notice and pressed for reform.
The same can happen here in Virginia, says Shah. She believes that collaborating with non-partisan democratic reform organizations like the two dozen members of the Virginia Swamp Busters partnership can put pressure on legislators to take ethics, transparency and corruption matters seriously.
Listen to the Citizen Reformers Podcast with Shruti Shah to learn more.