Ethics reform is key issue for 2015 assembly

With McDonnell heading to prison for corruption and McAuliffe calling for a cap on gifts to politicians, ethics reform is high on the agenda for the Virginia General Assembly’s 2015 session.

By Benjamin Mays

With a former governor heading to prison for corruption and his successor calling for a cap on gifts to politicians, ethics reform is high on the agenda for the Virginia General Assembly’s 2015 session.

Lawmakers have filed at least 15 bills dealing with gifts, conflicts of interest and other ethical issues. That follows the assembly’s creation of the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council in 2014 to oversee legislators’ activities. The council hasn’t been appointed yet, but it will include five retired lawmakers, four citizens and a retired judge.

“Important parts of the debate will include what kinds of teeth any new rules should have,” said Bob Gibson, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. He expects the debate also will address “how full and frequent reporting requirements should be.”

The debate is driven in part by the conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell for corruption. On January 6th, he was sentenced to two years in prison for accepting more than $177,000 in gifts and loans in exchange for helping a businessman promote a health supplement. At the sentencing, Republican House Speaker William Howell said there will be “significant amendments on gifts in session.”

When the General Assembly convened last Wednesday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe also weighed in. In his State of the Commonwealth speech, McAuliffe, a Democrat, called for putting a $100 cap on the gifts that public officials in Virginia can receive.

Virginia law currently says public officials cannot accept “tangible gifts” worth more than $250 from lobbyists or from individuals or entities seeking state contracts. A tangible gift means money or something that can easily be sold. The law does not limit “intangible gifts,” such as meals, trips, or tickets to events.

Ethics-related bills to watch

A half-dozen bills introduced this legislation session address the issue of gifts.

Senate Bill 696, sponsored by Sens. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, and Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, would prohibit state and local government officers and employees, including legislators and legislative candidates, from accepting “tangible gifts” worth more than $100. That ban also would apply to the public official’s immediate family.

Under SB 696, government employees could accept an “intangible gift” worth more than $100, but only with written approval from the ethics council. “The Council may approve those requests that provide a public benefit and do not raise the appearance of impropriety,” the measure says.

Other gift bills

  • HB 1598, sponsored by Delegate Vivian Watts, D-Annandale. Under this measure, any limits on gifts to public officials would also apply to their immediate family members. Violations of this legislation would draw a minimum fine of $2,500.
  • HB 1667, filed by Delegate David Bulova, D-Fairfax. It would prohibit public officials from receiving a gift or a combination of gifts “with a value exceeding $100 from any person.” The measure includes an exception for events that are sponsored by a nonprofit or government entity and are open to the public.
  • SB 777, introduced by Sen. Stephen Newman, R-Forest. It would allow legislators to identify themselves as “gift-free,” so lobbyists and the general public would know that they do not accept gifts.

Still more bills that mention gifts, compensation, and benefits

An ethical issue related to gifts involves travel. SB 924, filed by Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Leesburg, states that “a member of the assembly shall not be entitled to compensation or reimbursement for expenses for attendance or services performed at a conference for which the conference agenda or materials are not readily available to the public.”

Under SB 735, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, D-Burke, legislators would need the ethics council’s approval before accepting more than $250 in lodging, transportation, hospitality, or other travel-related services from a lobbyist or someone hoping for a state contract.

Approval would be given when “at least 90 percent of the travel is dedicated to the purpose of economic development, diplomacy, trade relations, or education or is in furtherance of carrying out duties imposed by statute or the work of any standing committee of the General Assembly or legislative interim study commission or committee.”

HB 1305, proposed by Delegate Peter Farrell, R-Henrico, deals with a different issue: lawmakers who leave office to work for a government agency. This became an issue last year when Republicans allegedly offered Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Tazewell, a position with the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission if he would resign from the Senate. (Puckett resigned, giving Republicans control of the Senate, but he did not take a job with the tobacco commission.)

Farrell’s bill would prohibit “any legislator, during the one year following his termination of service as a legislator, from accepting an appointment to or employment with a governmental agency. The bill exempts appointments by the Governor to serve as a Governor’s Secretary from this one-year prohibition.”

HB 1479, sponsored by Democratic Dels. Kaye Kory of Falls Church and Scott Surovell of Mount Vernon, has a similar goal. However, it would allow recently retired legislators to serve as court-appointed counsel.

Photo by: s.yume

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