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General Assembly members are examining ways to tighten ethics regulations. Gubernatorial candidates are weighing in, too.
Sunday, October 6, 2013
The gift scandal that has engulfed the governorship of Bob McDonnell in recent months has increased public pressure to reform Virginia’s lax laws on what lawmakers can take and what they have to disclose to the public.
McDonnell, in the last year of his four-year term, is under state and federal investigation regarding his acceptance and disclosure of gifts provided by a wealthy donor.
While his future is in the hands of investigators, lawmakers and the men seeking to succeed the governor have charted their own course on what needs to change regarding the influence of gifts and gaps in transparency in the law.
“I expect the new governor, regardless of who wins, and the next legislature will make reforming the state’s disclosure laws a priority,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.
Recognizing the public reaction to the scandal involving McDonnell, both major party candidates for governor have proposed reforms to gift and disclosure laws.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli have proposed forming an independent commission to oversee and enforce stronger ethics rules on elected officials and staff.
McAuliffe, who as Democratic National Committee chairman for President Bill Clinton brokered access to the White House for top donors, said that if he were elected, he would issue an executive order to impose an immediate ban on the governor and resident family members accepting gifts exceeding $100.
He also would seek legislative approval to extend the $100 limit to the office of the lieutenant governor, attorney general and members of the Virginia General Assembly.
Virginia’s current rules are based on disclosure rather than a gift limit. Officeholders must disclose any gift worth more than $50, but the law does not place the same reporting requirement on gifts to immediate family members.
Cuccinelli has called for a cap on gifts to lawmakers and immediate family members.
The attorney general also has vulnerability on the issue. Cuccinelli had his own brush with the McDonnell scandal when he disclosed that he and his family had accepted gifts — including a vacation stay and catered Thanksgiving dinner — from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr. They were items he initially failed to disclose on his statement of economic interests.
Cuccinelli was cleared of any violation of the ethics law after a review by Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring.
The attorney general has also called for a mandatory 10-day reporting period for significant travel expenses and any gifts exceeding $500 to a state official, as well as the annual disclosure of the governor’s personal tax filing from the preceding year.
McAuliffe is proposing that any gifts valued more than $500 provided to family members of a Virginia official who does not reside with the official also be disclosed on an annual statement of economic interests.
Whether most of the proposed reforms of would-be governors come to pass ultimately will be the decision of the General Assembly, which convenes in January.
House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, is leading a work group of House Republicans studying various reforms ahead of the legislative session. The group has been surveying laws from other states to help inform what they’ll eventually put forth.
“We’re serious about this; we think it’s a very serious issue,” he said.
While Cox said that nothing has been decided yet, the reforms could include beefing up disclosure of gifts to spouses and family members — however that is eventually defined.
Also in the mix is more frequent reporting than the current annual filing and the synchronization of the reporting dates for elected officials and lobbyists.
“We think legislators and lobbyists should be on the same schedule,” Cox said.
Currently, lobbyists disclose in July and lawmakers report in January. It can be hard to align the information from lobbyists and the disclosures that elected officials make in part because of the differing cycles and because they are submitted to different offices.
Cox said they’re looking into having elected officials file more than once a year, possibly once every six months.
Both sides of the political aisle understand the need to do something on gift and disclosure issues — and the more bipartisan the better.
Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, said he and Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County, have been asked by Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, to meet with Republican leaders to hash out some ideas for a reform bill that could pass the Senate, which has 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans.
McEachin said he expects discussions to begin in earnest when members of the Senate Finance Committee meet this fall for their annual retreat, but said that a key component of proposed legislation would be putting some teeth into violations of the law.
“A positive to me would be a bill that has a penalty to it for a violation,” he said.
Currently, there is no penalty for failing to disclose a gift on a statement of economic interest. Officials can amend their forms months or years after filing them without penalty. Authorities must prove that an official knowingly failed to disclose a gift to be considered a violation of the law, which is punishable as a misdemeanor.
McEachin said he supports placing a dollar limit on gifts to officials and a requirement to report gifts to immediate family members, but he said lawmakers need to better define what constitutes a gift to move forward.
Banning all gifts or gifts of a certain amount is an “oversimplification,” McEachin said.
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