In early September, the Center for Integrity, a DC-based not-for-profit that advocates for transparency and ethics in the private and government sectors, presented its annual ranking of the nation’s 50 states with respect to ethical standards and enforcement. The rating has become known as the Swamp Index, echoing a refrain from the current President. It comes as no shock to observers of business and government dynamics in the Commonwealth that—hold on tight—no ranking could be assigned to Virginia. Not, as you may have guessed, because it ranks too high beyond evaluation, but because it lacks an ethical framework for conduct or enforcement.
It may be comforting to some that the Old Dominion was among seven states with such a lax ethical framework as to be unratable. Whew! It’s comforting on some occasions not to be alone at the top, or bottom, of a ranking. Virginia is proud of its homegrown, homemade ethos for honorable behavior in business and government, dubbed the Virginia Way. Ethics, shmethics, say the winkers and nodders whose transactions among themselves drive the state’s commerce and economics—especially in their own interests. It’s akin to the old “what’s good for General Motors is good for America” converted to “what’s good for us is good for Virginia.” The left-outs and left-behinds in such circumstances benefit from the trickle down, one is supposed to understand.
There are those who defend the Commonwealth’s reluctance to engage in a commonly agreed-upon set of ethics, insisting that, by tradition, the state’s leadership is selfless, well-behaved, and proud of it. These defenders assert that the episode involving former Governor Bob McDonnell was an aberration, an outlier, and his conduct, as SCOTUS found, was not criminal. From the public’s point of view, however, Giftgate, as it was called, exposes behavior that violates expectations of elected leaders to serve the interests of constituents. That’s an ethical construct whether or not written into law.
Only practitioners of the Virginia Way and adherents to libertarian political ideology truly believe that McDonnell failed to understand that his conduct was wrong. Whether unspoken or overt, society has universal expectations of honorable conduct from every individual and organization that inhabits a jurisdiction. The absence of a law or enforcement of an ethical transgression is not the equivalent of no ethical expectation. As constituent populations increase along with cultural diversity, jurisdictions tend to adopt written rules of conduct from the simplest—traffic signals—to the more complex—laws or regulations covering government bidding processes.
Virginia’s reticence to engage this challenge will only continue to plague the Commonwealth. Clear signposts of the state’s expectations that men and women be treated equally and rules or regulations to promote and protect health and the environment are essential to encourage both a common appreciation for one another and for the Old Dominion as a society.
The duty to create such ethical expectations rests with the constituency itself, in particular, with the General Assembly and the elected state leadership. At present, the task is not to create a framework to anticipate every ethical expectation but to show some resolve to make progress toward lifting the Commonwealth to the ranks of states whose ethical standards can be measured.
Neither the Virginia Way nor libertarianism nor shmethics have served the state’s interests. It is time to remove the blinders. Prof. Larry Sabato of the UVA Center for Politics said, following the McDonnell episode:
The real lesson is Virginia needs far stronger ethics laws, including an independent ethics commission with subpoena power. Is the General Assembly listening and willing to act? It’s an open secret that many members of both parties’ legislative caucuses don’t want to give us strong reforms.
The Washington Post recently published a report on corruption charges against a host of government and private individuals in Front Royal, involving a multi-million-dollar scheme. A local resident who had campaigned to expose the plot remarked that the participants acted as though they were a “good ol’ boys’ club.” Coincidentally or not, an NPR story on the investigation into the motives of the Virginia Beach shooter reported that a local resident believed that some employees in the city government were discriminated against. The reason? A “good old boys system” rewarded employees. The comments from ordinary citizens from two disparate geographical locations are telling.
While these may be seen as micro examples of an absence of an ethical framework, the issue is how deeply and uniformly folks believe those with some power or authority will abuse it. A substantial function of an ethical system is to ensure adherence to honorable norms and create confidence and public trust in society’s functioning. In a companion article concerning virtuous corporations, the author states: The reason most people don’t steal things isn’t because they’re afraid of prison; it’s that they think it’s wrong. “Most” people, however , are not in a position of trust to cause serious harm by unethical conduct. Thus the need for overt expression of social values to guide behavior.
Another critic observed that there are ethics and there are laws and the laws are a floor, and our floor is pretty low in Virginia. Ethics considerations are higher. The law should be in line with the expectations in the public. It, of course, remains to be seen whether an off-the-scale rating of its ethics structure and mechanism motivates the elected leadership or will motivation arrive upon the next criminal complaint or costly scandal. Governance by good old boys is simply not acceptable and Sabato’s observation concerning the sclerosis in the General Assembly will, sooner or later, yield to public demand for reform. Either ethics or shmethics to replace the Virginia way is an improvement.