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By Sean Gorman August 13, 2012

Ethics panel deemed unnecessary

On the campaign trail in 2009, Bob McDonnell promised more transparency in state government, in part, by establishing an independent ethics commission.

"Virginia is one of only 10 states without an independent ethics commission," his campaign said in a September 28, 2009, policy paper. "Bob McDonnell will establish a permanent, statewide independent agency that will provide advice and research as well as evaluate complaints concerning elected officials and appointees to boards, commissions and other public bodies."

A March 2012 report said Virginia has a high risk of government corruption, in part because it is among a handful of states that still does not have an ethics panel. The study, co-sponsored by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity, ranked Virginia ranked 47th among states in its efforts to curb corruption.

But McDonnell no longer thinks the commission is necessary, according to Taylor Thornley, who left her post as a spokeswoman for the governor shortly after we interviewed her for this story. She said McDonnell boosted oversight of Virginia's government by establishing an inspector general's office, charged with probing waste, fraud and abuse.  In June, McDonnell appointed Michael F.A. Morehart to head the office. Morehart is a former senior auditor of state public accounts and a ex-FBI special agent.

We have previously written about McDonnell's campaign pledge to establish an inspector general and rated it a Promise Kept.

"The governor believes that the Inspector General's office fills the role of the ethics commission goal," Thornley said in an e-mail. "Rather than duplicating work and missions, the role of the ethics commission is being handled through the Inspector General's office."

The ultimate goal is to ensure that ethical violations are investigated and addressed, Thornley said.

Peggy Kerns, the director of the National Council of State Legislators' Ethics Center, said it is possible for an inspector general to fulfill the role of an ethics commission -- which typically is  a group of citizens appointed by elected officials to ensure ethics statutes are followed.

"I have not heard of any state that, in lieu of an ethics commission, has an inspector general," Kerns said. "There are several states that have inspectors general and at the same time have ethics commissions."

The inspector general is empowered to probe allegations of waste fraud and abuse by any "officer or employee" of a state agency or non-state agency. That includes oversight of boards and commissions appointed by the governor.

The inspector is not entitled to probe misconduct charges concerning General Assembly members. The state constitution allows the House and the Senate to police their own ethical affairs.

So when it comes to policing state government, McDonnell has opted for an inspector general's office instead of an ethics commission. Then governor's office said there's no need to have two groups that overlap.

But during his campaign, McDonnell pledged to establish both entities. So we rate this a Promise Broken.

Our Sources

Bob McDonnell for Governor, "Government reform," September 28, 2009.

E-mails from Taylor Thornley, spokeswoman for Gov. Bob McDonnell, July 3 and July 19.

Governor Bob McDonnell, "Governor McDonnell announces board appointments and additional appointment to administration," June 15, 2012.

Interview with Peggy Kerns, director of the National Conference of State Legislature"s Ethics Center, July 20, 2012.

Legislative Information Service, "HB 2076," law creating inspector general"s office, April 6, 2011.

The State Integrity Investigation, Virginia Corruption Risk Report Card, Accessed July 23, 2012.

PolitiFact Virginia, "New Inspector General Office to open in July," December 7, 2011.

Interview with Michael Morehart, Virginia State Inspector General, August 7, 2012.

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