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Youngkin’s wealth helped win him office. Now it’s testing Virginia’s lax ethics laws

Person speaks to crowd
Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin speaks at an October campaign event in Stafford County. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Republican Glenn Youngkin’s wealth helped catapult him from political nobody to Virginia’s executive mansion, investing $20 million of his own money into his campaign. It was a drop in the bucket of a fortune valued over $450 million, with his financial holdings eclipsing the annual budgets of several state agencies he’ll soon manage.

The money now poses potential conflicts of interest as Youngkin prepares to be sworn in as governor, with only some of his holdings in a blind trust. And while the businessman has complied with state disclosure laws, he has declined to hand over tax returns that would paint a fuller picture of his wealth. Youngkin will inherit a state government with some of the laxest ethics rules in the country, according to one ranking, with promised reforms making little headway under generations of Democratic and Republican leaders.

Youngkin put some of his holdings into a blind trust after winning the Republican nomination in May -- an arrangement also used by several of his predecessors in the executive mansion. The blind trust includes his holdings in Carlyle Group, where he served as co-CEO; an August 2020 federal filing showed Youngkin owned over eight million shares in the stock, a holding that, if Youngkin kept, is now valued at more than $459 million.

“They have been entirely removed from my knowledge and control,” Youngkin wrote on a disclosure form signed in June. Macaulay Porter, a transition aide, said a professional asset manager would be in charge of the trust but declined to name them. Youngkin has also pledged to donate all of his $175,000 annual salary to unspecified charities.

Dozens of Youngkin’s stocks, bonds and mutual funds will remain outside of the trust. Those assets include hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in stocks of companies that do business in Virginia, including: Anthem, Cigna Corp., Citigroup, CVS Healthcare Corp, Comcast, General Mills, Microsoft, PNC Financial Services Group, Procter & Gamble, Target, Teladoc Health, Verizon, Visa and Richmond-based CarMax Inc, among others. Youngkin also holds millions of dollars in bonds issued by Virginia-based public authorities ranging from the Riverside Virginia Regional Jail Authority to the Loudoun County Economic Development Authority.

The exact amount of holdings remains unclear because Virginia’s disclosure forms provide ranges rather than precise dollar amounts. Youngkin has not provided more detailed information or responded to calls to release his tax returns. Both Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe backed off promises to the Associated Press to share summaries of their tax returns during the campaign.

After his Nov. 2 general election win, Youngkin’s campaign provided a spreadsheet to the Washington Post showing he made $127 million over five years and gave away over $52 million to charity. The Post was not able to verify the figures, and Porter declined to show VPM the same information.  

Delaney Marsco, senior legal counsel for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, said a truly blind trust is one in which politicians divest their wealth from their current portfolio. The money is then either put in savings accounts or exchange-traded funds that contain a broad spectrum of assets.

“The easiest way for us to avoid a conflict of interest is just to not have those conflict producing assets in the first place,” Marsco said.

Marsco said the issue became apparent at the federal level in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when several members of Congress bought and sold stock after receiving classified briefings. A report from CLC found 12 senators and 37 House members purchased or sold stocks from Feb. 2 to April 8, 2020; U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) remains under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for insider trading. No similar data exists in Virginia because state lawmakers and other officials are not required to disclose when they buy or sell stocks or recuse themselves from votes involving their holdings.

Youngkin is not the first wealthy governor to use a blind trust. Democrat Mark Warner, who entered the executive mansion with his own unprecedented wealth in 2002, took the same step. Neither of his successors -- Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Bob McDonnell -- used a trust.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe sold his assets of GreenTech Automotive, a firm he co-founded that faced federal investigation and a lawsuit from Chinese investors, after winning office in 2013. He also moved his sizable assets into a blind trust.

As a state senator, Gov. Ralph Northam took votes related to Dominion Energy while also holding the company’s stock. The stock became an issue on the campaign trail and the Democrat ultimately put all his assets in a blind trust.

The commonwealth’s ethics laws are among the loosest in the country, according to a ranking last year by the Coalition for Integrity. The issue has largely faded after McDonnell faced federal corruption charges for accepting expensive gifts from a Richmond businessman seeking favors from the state. (His two year prison sentence was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, and McDonnell now sits on Youngkin’s transition team).

In the wake of the scandal, lawmakers adopted a few piecemeal changes, including capping gifts from lobbyists at $100 and the creation of an ethics council. That council does not speak to the public or press or investigate wrongdoing.

Shruti Shah, president of the coalition, urged action in the face of waning trust in government.

“I think the perception is that people in government don't act for the interests of the constituents,” Shah said. “And one way to change that is to enact strong ethics rules, strong campaign finance rules, and focus on implementing them.”