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COLLINS: A government corrupted by free food

Today, let's talk about Virginia, host of the nation's most interesting off-year election. True, the New York mayor's race has been pretty frisky since we acquired Anthony Weiner as a candidate, but I'm still going with Virginia.

The governor's race there has a dandy ethics controversy that began with charges that a businessman with a rather dicey background gave Gov. Bob McDonnell $15,000 to pay for the catering at his daughter's wedding. Actually, this would have been perfectly legal if McDonnell had just disclosed it. Under Virginia's ethics laws, the governor can accept anything — house, car, private jet, former Soviet republic — as long as he puts it in the proper form.

He also might have been able to get off the hook when the transaction was discovered, just by saying he forgot to mention it. (Virginia's rules are more flexible than a Slinky.) But McDonnell claimed total innocence, arguing that the $15,000 was a wedding gift to his daughter and, therefore, didn't count.

"It's caused a fair amount of pain for me personally," he said. "I'm a governor, but I'm a dad, and I love my daughter very much."

What, exactly, do you think that means? That McDonnell feels bad about shoveling the blame onto his offspring? That he could not have afforded to give her all the jumbo shrimp she deserved without financial assistance?

Looks like an investigation for Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli! Except — whoops — it turned out that Cuccinelli had also taken gifts from the same businessman, some of which he, too, had failed to report. Like several stays in a vacation home, one of which involved a catered Thanksgiving dinner. Have you noticed a theme here?

McDonnell's term is up and Cuccinelli is running to replace him. Perhaps unreported freebies will be a big campaign issue. Although in a more perfect world, voters might focus on the attorney general's two-year investigation of a University of Virginia scientist for the crime of believing in global warming.

But, still, the catered affairs are pretty interesting. When politicians take freebies, it is, alas, generally more compelling than conflicts involving campaign finance. McDonnell had previously taken more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the same benefactor, the dietary supplement maker Jonnie Williams. But somehow that seemed to pale beside those shrimp.

"There's a personal relationship attached to gifts and perks," said Peggy Kerns, the director of the National Conference of State Legislatures Center for Ethics in Government. A former Colorado lawmaker herself, Kerns offered a vision of resentful voters, sitting shivering at the end zone of a Broncos game, while comfy officials enjoyed the buffet in a corporate sponsor's luxury box.

Campaign contributions do way, way more to corrupt the political process than gifts to politicians. Unfortunately, it's harder to make the emotional connection to a wayward PAC. This is why so many public officials get into trouble for accepting free home repairs. Everybody wants a kitchen with granite countertops. But few of us yearn to purchase our own negative ad campaign.


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