The nonprofit Coalition for Integrity released its 2020 scorecard for state anti-corruption efforts in mid-November. Virginia ranks 46th in the nation.
Washington State scored the highest, with 80 out of 100 possible points, followed by Rhode Island and the District of Columbia. But Virginia, scoring 33 points, finished in the bottom ten percent, outperforming only Utah, Michigan, Arizona, Idaho and Wyoming.
The S.W.A.M.P. Index — a clever acronym which stands for States with Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials — analyzes the efficacy of state ethics agencies using 10 simple questions. “If you look at the questions, they’re really not that revolutionary, not at all controversial either,” said Shruti Shah, CEO of the Coalition for Integrity. Shah, a forensic accountant by training, spearheaded the S.W.A.M.P. Index initiative in 2018 when she stepped into the role of CEO.
Many of the questions can be answered with a simple yes or no. They are table stakes, Shah said, falling well below the level of being aspirational. Does the state have an ethics agency with jurisdiction over executive and legislative branches? Does the agency have the power to conduct investigations, hold public hearings, and subpoena? Can it sanction or impose injunctions and fines?Are the members of the agency protected from removal without cause? Does the state have gift prohibitions?
The commonwealth is one of four states whose ethics agencies have no ability to impose sanctions of any kind, one of only two states with no ability to investigate reports of wrongdoing, one of eight states that does not statutorily protect ethics agency members from removal without cause, and one of two states that does not require independent spenders to report information about its contributors.
Shah said that these kinds of state anti-corruption measures hold public officials accountable to their constituents. “People have to be able to trust in their government and understand that our public officials, our leaders, are making decisions which are in our interest,” she said.
“If I can view what you’re doing, I can hold you accountable. … If you are being transparent and the public has the ability to question or to support you, it leads to more sustainable change, it means that your decisions are more likely to be accepted by a wider population rather than being done in secret.”
Virginia has three ethics agencies: the enfeebled Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council and the House and Senate Ethics Advisory panels. Shah explained that while the House and Senate Ethics Advisory panels have the authority to investigate, they can only investigate matters referred to them by the Council.
“The Ethics Advisory Council has no investigative power and of course they don’t actually accept anonymous complaints,” Shah explained. “And also they don’t have any ability to sanction, they can’t issue injunctions or any fines whatsoever and the members of the ethics agencies are also not protected from removal without cause.”
Bob Good, congressman-elect of Virginia’s Fifth District, faced questions about his financial disclosure statements from this and other newspapers statewide just a few months ago.
In October Virginia Public Media reported that, when asked about his failure to disclose assets while serving on the Campbell County Board of Supervisors, Good responded dispassionately: “I don’t think this question is of any concern to the voters of the fifth district.”
But state ethics, Shah said, should be something Virginia voters care about.
“[The pandemic has] kind of brought these issues of state ethics and transparency to the forefront in my mind because … this is who we are looking to for leadership, this is who we rely on for all these things that affect our daily lives. So we have to be able to trust that the decisions are being made in our best interest,” she said.
You can read more about the S.W.A.M.P. Index and the full report on the Coalition for Integrity’s website at coalitionforintegrity.org/swamp2020.