Va. ‘ethics reform’ is riddled with loopholes and softens a penalty for lying in disclosures

Robert McCartney
Columnist February 22

The purported “ethics reform” bills sliding easily through the Virginia legislature include a curious, little-noticed provision.

Under language approved by the Senate and House of Delegates, legislators would no longer be obliged to have their financial disclosure forms notarized.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Why is that important? It means lawmakers would be charged only with a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, for making a false statement about their investments or gifts they’ve received from lobbyists.

Well, isn’t that convenient.

Richmond political leaders have touted the bills as taking a major bite out of corruption, in response to the gifts scandal involving former governor Bob McDonnell (R). Instead, this switch would yank out one of the current law’s sharper teeth.

The bills’ drafters supposedly made the change because of advancing technology. General Assembly members are to stop filing disclosure forms on paper and start doing so electronically, where notarization was said to be difficult.

It’s a phony argument. Lawmakers could easily write the bills to make it a felony to lie on a disclosure form, no matter how it’s filed.

The public should demand they do so before the General Assembly approves a final version of the bill in the remaining two weeks of the regular session.

The legislature should also tighten current law to oblige the governor and other executive branch officials to notarize disclosures. Oddly, the requirement now applies to only General Assembly members.

If the legislature won’t act, then Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) should use his amendment powers to force the changes. Given the ethical controversies in his past, he needs to grab every opportunity to set a good example.

The quiet move to scrap the notarization requirement is just one example of why Virginia’s political class should be ashamed of the weak, loophole-riddled ethics measure.

Both chambers quickly coalesced around nearly identical bills designed mainly to trick voters into thinking something important was happening.

It’s not a partisan issue. When it comes to protecting their perks, both Democrats and Republicans are to blame.

I lack space to describe all of the bills’ shortcomings, but here are some highlights.

First, the centerpiece is a $250 “cap” on gifts to public officials that’s close to meaningless.

The ceiling is not cumulative. So there’s no limit on the number of $250 gifts that a lobbyist or state contractor could give in hope of influencing a lawmaker or other official.

More important, the $250 limit would apply only to so-called tangible gifts, or objects. That is aimed at largesse, such as the $6,500 Rolex watch that McDonnell received via his wife from businessman Jonnie Williams Sr.

But the biggest gifts bestowed by corporations, lobbyists and foreign governments are “intangible” ones, such as overseas trips, weekends at the Masters golf tournament and tickets to FedEx Field.

According to a study by the left-leaning advocacy group ProgressVA, only 18 gifts out of 756 given during 2012 were identified as “tangible.” Of those, eight breached the $250 threshold.

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) tried to toughen the measure. He offered an amendment requiring lawmakers to show that any trip costing more than $1,000 was for a valid purpose, such as fact-finding or promoting Virginia business.

The Senate rejected the amendment on a voice vote.

“I was trying to get rid of hunting safaris in Africa and corporate jet trips to sporting events,” Ebbin said. “I don’t think we need that, and I don’t think people find that acceptable.”

The bills also create a state ethics advisory council, which is mostly for show. Unlike a similar body in Maryland, Virginia’s would lack the power to subpoena witnesses and to investigate and prosecute ethics violations.

Finally, the bills would not require disclosure of gifts or loans to corporate entities in which a public official owned a stake.

That means there still would be no need for disclosure of payments similar to the large loans from Williams to a McDonnell family real estate venture.

“Somebody could give my law firm a car I could drive, and I wouldn’t have to report that,” said Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), the only delegate to vote against the bill.

Until I told him about it Friday afternoon, Surovell hadn’t heard that the notarization requirement was being dropped.

He e-mailed me later, predicting that the flaw would be corrected before a final version of the legislation was approved.

That would be a start. But the legislature and the governor ought to put considerably more muscle in the measure lest the public’s confidence in its officials sags even lower.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney .

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