In a Richmond federal courtroom yesterday, Justin French pleaded guilty to illegally obtaining between $7 million to $20 million worth of state and federal tax credits to rehab historic Richmond real properties. He could spend up to 30 years behind bars. Justice is done, and everyone is happy.  But not really.  French is just the latest in a string of fraudsters and rip-off artists who’ve stolen millions from Virginia taxpayers, and the rash of recent scandals is making it clear that the state desperately needs an independent inspector general who can sniff out the fraud and abuse long before it reaches French-like proportions.

Consider a few recent examples…

  • Former state finance secretary John Forbes stole $5 million from the state’s Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission – while serving as a member of the commission’s board.  He’s been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
  • Former Delegate Phil Hamilton is under federal indictment for bribery and extortion, relating to a scheme he concocted to create a position for himself at Old Dominion University using taxpayer funds.
  • The Attorney General’s office is investigating the deal to acquire Biscuit Run from a group of developers and convert the land into a state park – a deal closed in the waning days of the Kaine administration. Taxpayers may be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in what is being characterized as a bailout for the developers.

And there’s more – recent audits of the state’s transportation department (VDOT) have found that its operations are hamstrung by political meddling, and that it was sitting on nearly $1.5 billion in unspent funds, even while its political masters during the Kaine years were pleading poverty (and closing, for a time, the state’s rest areas).  While none of this was criminal, it does show a profound lack of accountability.

Just this morning, Del. Ben Cline testified before a House committee “…on need to audit the (Virginia) Lottery after revelations that they gave [Washington Redskins] skybox tickets to staff instead of awarding as prizes.” This isn’t Cline’s first run-in with the Lottery, which seems to have a rather interesting view of how it spends taxpayer dollars.

These incidents are likely just the tip of the iceberg – and why Virginia needs to take immediate steps to crack-down on its newest growth industry.

Delegate Steve Landes is carrying legislation in the General Assembly to create an independent inspector general who would be appointed by the governor but subject to General Assembly confirmation. The IG would be responsible for investigating “…complaints alleging fraud, waste, abuse, corruption, or mistreatment of citizens of the Commonwealth by a state agency or public officers and employees, including allegations of criminal acts affecting the operation of state agencies.”

Similar bills have been introduced for years in the General Assembly, but gotten nowhere. Here’s hoping the worthies decided to do the long-overdue right thing and pass Landes’ bill.