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Terrible choices / October 14, 2021
There’s an exception to prove every rule, which goes for reporting as much it does for everything else in the world.

On Friday, a much-covered story took a terrible turn: Steve Anderson, a retired Virginia tax compliance official and prominent county resident, did not show for a hearing in the tax embezzlement case pending against him in Richmond City Circuit Court. Back home in Halifax, Anderson had taken his life that morning as prosecution and defense attorneys were preparing to review the status of his case — which had been the subject of widespread reporting after a Richmond grand jury in May charged Anderson with felony theft of public funds and computer trespass.

The rule: responsible media organizations do not report suicides. The exception: there are rare instances when it’s impossible not to. If someone takes their life in the public square, one simply cannot look away and act as if nothing has happened. If a major criminal prosecution comes to an end because the defendant dies by suicide, that, too, is properly a matter of public record. This is not to downplay the pain that such stories inflict on a human and community level. No one should take any joy in passing on information that is sure to bring misery to others. But as a journalistic imperative, this was a straightforward call. We published our story first on our website, then in Monday’s print edition.

Over the years, I got to know Steve reasonably well in a public sort of way -— it happens all the time in the newspaper business. My first contact was through his work with the state tax department, followed by his term on the Halifax County School Board (he served from 2001-2005) and continuing onward with his many civic and church volunteer engagements. Many others knew Steve far better than me. But speaking only from personal experience, I can say my dealings with him were unfailingly cordial — Steve was hard not to like, given his thoughtful demeanor and what for all the world seemed to be his innate sense of decency. When I first learned of the allegations against him, I was floored. The charges seemed unfathomable — that someone who practically embodied the phrase “pillar of the community” could have gone so wrong.

Allegations, of course, are just that — unproven until they aren’t. There will be no such resolution here. But there’s a reason why Anderson’s case drew so much attention: theft of tax funds is a grave offense that strikes at the heart of government, and self-government. For all the emphasis placed on the criminal and civil consequences of tax avoidance, the truth is the entire system would fall apart if not for the voluntary compliance of taxpaying citizens. A general strike by taxpayers because they’ve lost faith in the integrity of the tax department would be an utter disaster for the country. A baseline level of trust — that quaint, seemingly naïve word — is required for government and society to function. And criminal wrongdoing by individuals inside that system is a toxin which cannot go unchecked nor unpunished.

I have no idea if Steve Anderson was guilty as charged or if he was wronged by overzealous investigators. With either outcome, however, there is one thing I do know: his passing is a tragedy. The main thought I would offer here is directed towards those who are going through their own personal crises, from which there seems to be no escape, no answer: please, taking one’s life is not that answer.

If you are contemplating suicide — find someone you can talk to about your emotions and urges, because suicide solves nothing: it only amplifies the pain and hardship of those you may believe you’re saving from further misery. Help is a phone call away: 800-273-8255, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Opening up about your problems can be a lifesaver, and if you can’t bear the thought of doing so with those around you, there are people on the outside who are willing and able to help. The call is free, and the reward can be beyond measure.


Let’s move on to our regularly scheduled programming:

» After voters last November gave overwhelming support to the idea of taking politics out of the inherently political task of redrawing election lines, the Virginia Redistricting Commission has tanked its first assignment: coming up with new House and Senate districts for the Virginia General Assembly. (The commission threw in the towel this week.) If the commission somehow manages to agree on a new map for Virginia’s 11 congressional districts, a separate item on the group’s agenda, maybe it won’t go down as a complete flop, but the odds of succeeding there aren’t great, either.

Clearly, the commission is fatally flawed, and I have an opinion as to why: under the amendment to the state constitution that passed in 2020, the 16-member commission is made up of equal numbers of private citizens and General Assembly lawmakers, balanced evenly between parties. Putting politicians on the commission was a bad idea, even if the commission itself is a well-intended response to rampant gerrymandering and partisan fixing of elections. Anyone who has watched the Virginia Tobacco Commission in action over the past two-plus decades would have known that putting Richmond’s finest in charge was a recipe for failure. Now we see this reality in action in a fresh new way. Yippee.

» On the topic of rigging America’s democracy, I direct your attention to this column in The Washington Post by columnist Max Boot, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative prior to the age of Trump. Surveying the former president’s refusal to accept his loss in the 2020 presidential election, and the incessant lies that Trump’s blinkered supporters have swallowed whole, Boot has a warning for the country:

It is mind-boggling that a defeated president won’t accept the election outcome — the sine qua non of democracy. That has never happened in U.S. history. What is even more alarming is that more than 60 percent of Republicans agree with his preposterous assertion that the election was stolen and want him to remain as the party’s leader.

Most Republicans couldn’t care less about the latest revelations of Trump’s coup plots ... If Trump runs for president again — as he shows every sign of doing — he will be a shoo-in for the nomination.

We only narrowly defeated the Trump coup in 2020 — and his loyalists are now purging Republican officeholders who refused to cooperate with this assault on democracy. It would be foolhardy to imagine that Republican officeholders who go along with the “big lie” now — as almost all of them do — will resist it in 2024.

Running for governor this year, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin has shown no inclination, nor backbone, to stand up to the lies of his political master. (It’s quite a commentary that Trump is basically the master of almost every Republicans running for public office, whether they like it or not.) Youngkin has played footsie throughout his campaign with elements of the party that advocate outright insurrection, with wink-wink calls for “election integrity” and other toots on the right-wing dog whistle — spanning topics from Critical Race Theory (which does not exist in public schools) to the so-called “Parents Matter” movement that has sprung up in the past couple of weeks, like dandelions on an unkempt lawn, to whatever else might be airing on Fox News on a given evening. It’s all a crock, of course, but it’s what Republicans routinely do. Whether Virginia voters will reward the GOP candidates in November for such rampant dishonesty remains to be seen. But don’t be fooled: if the choice is between telling a lie to win the favor of Trump voters or standing firm in defense of democracy, a cipher like Youngkin can be expected to fold every time.

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