Washington Post Metro reporter Aaron Davis has an excellent story in today's paper about ethically-deficient D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) attending a reelection campaign fundraiser at the home of an "incarcerated real estate mogul" who is guilty of having "prey[ed] on homeowners facing foreclosure." Said home, by the way, is $36,000 in arrears on D.C. property taxes. Last year some of Davis's colleagues reported on how the Gray administration had moved to evict elderly residents from their houses for paltry sums of backpaid taxes, many times in cases where they had not been properly notified that they owed the District any money.
Unfortunately for Davis, and more importantly, for Post readers, his editors decided to shuffle his story off to page C5 in the Sunday paper. By contrast, they plastered the front page of Metro with an above-the-fold headline scolding the Virginia state legislature -- the lower house of which is dominated by Republicans -- for not going far enough in its ethics reforms: "Va. moves to tighten ethics rules -- but not too much."
"Loopholes remain in proposed bills," added the first subheader. A second subhead quoted the state senate's majority leader, a Democrat, "Saslaw: 'Either you're dishonest or you're not.'"
The story itself by Post staffer Michael Laris is about twice as long as Davis's and attempts to color the ethics debate with the fortunes of an indicted former Republican governor. Here's how it opens (emphasis mine):
RICHMOND — While attorneys for former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell wrangle in court over felony charges that he and his wife, Maureen, illegally accepted luxury gifts and large loans, state lawmakers are wrapping up a session in which they have left open key loopholes that could allow a similar scandal to unfold.
With just a week to go before its scheduled adjournment, the General Assembly has not passed the kind of sweeping reforms of Virginia’s lax ethics rules that Republicans and Democrats both said they wanted after the McDonnell revelations began, and they did little to address a host of other problems cited by advocates of deeper reform.
They left untouched the state’s no-limit campaign finance culture, in which officials can take checks of any size as long as they’re disclosed. They let themselves and other state and local officials continue taking unlimited and undisclosed loans through companies they own. And although they passed bills banning some individual gifts greater than $250, they put no caps on the cumulative dollar value of gifts officials can receive from people with business before them.
Top Republican and Democratic leaders also saw little benefit in publicly sparring over laws governing their own conduct and that of other statewide and local officials. They made a strategic decision to prioritize their own bipartisan unity over the ambition of their shared ethics package, which tamped down debate and undercut bolder initiatives.
Another key hurdle is philosophy. Despite the desire to be seen as doing something post-McDonnell, some of the powerful legislators who could have pushed for more comprehensive changes — but haven’t — remained intensely skeptical of the entire reform exercise.
“The absurdity is, you can’t legislate ethics,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “Either you’re dishonest or you’re not, okay? It’s more window dressing. It’s an attempt to deal with stuff, maybe tighten up a few things here or there.”
Saslaw said that states with strict laws on the flow of money in politics are still vulnerable to human nature, just as laws against murder and embezzlement don’t stop bad acts. And despite the McDonnell scandal, and the nine-year prison sentence given to a former ranking member of the House of Delegates in 2011 on bribery and extortion charges, he said Virginia’s record remains strong.
“Look at all the laws that Maryland has. Every three years, one of them goes off to prison,” Saslaw said. “That doesn’t happen here. Do you know what it is? When you’re born, you’ve got a chip in your head, and it tells you what’s right and what’s wrong. And somewhere along the line, some of these chips go bad. That’s the problem.”
That's not, of course, the philosophy of the Washington Post editorially, which has long bemoaned Virginia's lack of campaign contribution limits and which rarely sees a "good government" proposal which it doesn't support. The paper has ridden these hobby horses repeatedly, and it's hard for the news pages to not notice what the editorial board fixates on.
But Saslaw does have a point: political culture matters a lot more than laws. You can legislate until you're blue in the face, but the underlying political culture will still govern, which brings us back to Vincent Gray and the morally bankrupt one-party political culture of the District of Columbia. Corruption reigns supreme in the District in no small measure because of a one-party monopoly and a culture of pay-to-play politics. It's aided and abetted by a newspaper which doesn't take seriously its responsibility to combat that corruption in its own backyard.
Gray is up for reelection and commands a lead in the polls, despite ethical lapses and incompetence within his administration. That the Post chooses to bury a story which paints him in a negative light speaks volumes, even if you can say, "well, at least they ran the story."