Sunday, February 27, 2011

U.S. Navy Vets case argues for campaign limits

The General Assembly wiped the egg off its face by passing a repeal of the law that "Bobby Thompson" and his generous campaign donations got passed in the 2010 session.

But it has done nothing to slay the goose that keeps laying the ammunition.

Thompson -- or the man who goes by that name; Ohio officials say it is a stolen identity -- greased the skids well for the bill he wanted passed.

It was unwise legislation, waiving the need for tax-exempt veterans charities to register with the state. Thompson, for some inexplicable reason, did not want to have to register his organization, U.S. Navy Veterans Association.

But it's amazing how the careful application of tens of thousands of dollars can convince legislators to ignore their better instincts.

So, $67,500 later, Thompson got his bill. But even before Gov. Bob McDonnell signed it into law, red flags were being raised.

It came to light that Thompson's organization was under investigation in several states. The long list of officers listed on its website turned out to consist almost entirely of fictitious names. In fact, Thompson was the only director that St. Petersburg Times reporters could find. And, as mentioned, his identity was stolen.

Sen. Patsy Ticer, who introduced the legislation, tried to get McDonnell's office to hold off on signing the bill once she realized how questionable the organization was, but word didn't reach him in time.

So, even as the U.S. Navy Vets story heated up, the bill became law.

Egg, meet face.

The repeal of the law is a good step, but what about the system that led to it being enacted in the first place?

How many other misguided laws get passed every year because they benefit a special interest that knew which palms to grease?

Part of the problem is Virginia's complete lack of any limits on campaign contributions.

During the 2009 campaign, Thompson wrote lots of checks, most of them for between $2,000 and $5,000. After he donated $5,500 to then-Sen. Ken Cuccinelli in the midst of his successful run for attorney general, the candidate called him and asked for another donation.

That's when Thompson wrote his biggest check: $50,000 to the man who would become the next attorney general. Three weeks after receiving that check, Cuccinelli held a press conference to repeat an earlier call to move the office that regulates charities under the attorney general's office.

That agency, the state Office of Consumer Affairs, recently referred the U.S. Navy Vets case to Cuccinelli, after its investigation concluded it was a fraudulent group that raised about $2 million from Virginia residents.

Considering he received $55,500 in donations from the head of the group, Cuccinelli is in an awkward position.

His spokesman Brian Gottstein said his boss is eager to take on the case, though. Unfortunately, when he said that, Gottstein completely rewrote history: "I know that besides his being roped into these shenanigans, the whole point of people using veterans to scam other people out of money and then the money not going to veterans groups -- he is extremely angry about that. And I know he wants to see justice done on this."

Hmmm. "Roped into these shenanigans." Is that what you call it when a candidate calls up a political donor and asks for even more money? Or is that what you call it when you refuse to divest yourself of those donations for months after it has become apparent that the donor is involved in a fishy situation that could involve you in your official capacity as attorney general?

Virginia is one of only a handful of states that places no limits on political contributions. The U.S. Navy Vets case is exhibit No. 1 in the argument against that practice.

The notion in Virginia is that disclosure works better than limits. It's OK if public officials are bought by unlimited donations as long as voters know who is doing the buying.

Well, as Bobby Thompson -- or whatever his actual name is -- proves, voters don't always know who is doing the buying. Or legislators, for that matter.

Don't look for caps to be put on campaign donations, though. Lawmakers and other public officials would doubtless rather end up with the occasional egg on their faces than kill the goose that lays the golden eggs that fill their campaign coffers.

Radmacher is the editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.

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