Virginia has one of nation’s most lax ethics laws for politicians


Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell talks with members of the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond in this 2012 file photo. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
April 27, 2013

He picked up the $15,000 catering tab at the wedding of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s daughter, lent the governor his lake house and gave him the keys to his Ferrari. And along the way, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. also put a spotlight on the state’s unusually lax ethics laws.

The value of those gifts raised eyebrows, especially because the Republican governor and first lady have promoted Williams’s firm, Star Scientific, which is mired in financial and legal troubles.

But there is nothing illegal or unusual about accepting such largesse in the Old Dominion, one of just 10 states that allow officeholders to take personal gifts of unlimited value, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. McDonnell’s predecessor, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D), also received sizable gifts, including an $18,000 Caribbean vacation from a wealthy supporter.

Virginia requires only that officials disclose any gifts worth more than $50. Kaine reported his vacation gift, and McDonnell did the same for the lakeside lodging. But McDonnell did not disclose the wedding payment or his three-hour spin in Williams’s $190,000 Ferrari.

McDonnell has said the payment from Williams was a present not to him but to his daughter. The commonwealth does not require officials to disclose gifts to immediate relatives. That loophole, when paired with the lack of dollar limits, gives Virginia one of the most unrestricted gift laws in the nation.


This photograph shows a Ferrari owned by Star Scientific Inc. chief executive officer Jonnie R. Williams Sr. parked in front of the Virginia's historic governor's mansion. A spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell said that at the conclusion of a vacation provided by Williams in July 2011, the governor and his family drove the car from Smith Mountain Lake to Richmond as a favor to the CEO. (Obtained by TWP)

There is some question about McDonnell’s contention that he was not involved in financing his daughter’s wedding; he personally signed the catering contract and put down an $8,000 deposit, part of which was later refunded to first lady Maureen McDonnell, not their daughter Cailin.

But a gift to the governor’s daughter would not have to be reported in Virginia, which is not the case in most of the nation. Thirty-two states treat gifts to officials’ close relatives as gifts to the officials themselves, according to a survey by the NCSL. Some laws explicitly apply gift restrictions to immediate family, while others say the rules pertain to gifts given “directly or indirectly” to officials.

In Maryland and the District, ethics laws generally prohibit officials and public employees from accepting gifts from anyone with business before the government. Both places make exceptions related to certain meals and gifts of “nominal” value, such as pens or calendars.

There is no explicit ban on gifts to close relatives of officials in Maryland or the District. But ethics officials in both places said that such gifts would not be allowed because their laws prohibit doing something indirectly that can’t be done directly. Darrin Sobin, the District’s director of government ethics, also pointed to a city law that forbids using public office for private gain.

“If someone called me up and said, ‘Could I accept this for my daughter’s wedding?’ I think the answer here in the District would be, ‘No,’ ” he said. “Even if the individual is not a prohibited source — anybody regulated by or doing business with the city — they still would not be able to donate for the wedding because they probably in all likelihood [are offering the gift] simply because the public official is who he is.”

Williams offered the wedding gift at a time when Glen Allen, Va.-based Star Scientific, which makes a dietary supplement and facial cream under the brand name Anatabloc, was suing the state to challenge a property tax assessment.

The governor and his wife have been high-profile boosters for Star Scientific, which has lost money for 10 years and is the subject of a federal securities investigation and two shareholder lawsuits. Maureen McDonnell traveled to Florida to talk up Anatabloc to investors three days before the wedding, and she and the governor hosted a gathering at the mansion to mark the product’s arrival in stores.

The McDonnell wedding gift, first revealed by The Washington Post, has prompted some officials to call for changing the law to require that gifts to close relatives be disclosed.

“The recent situation regarding gifts to the governor’s family has brought to light that a technical reading of the law does not include gifts to family members,” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), a close ally of McDonnell’s. “My view is that they should be reported.”

Bolling said he has always included gifts to his family — whether they were NASCAR tickets for his sons or a piece of pottery presented to his wife — on his annual financial disclosure forms.

“When somebody gives a gift to my wife or a gift to my kids, chances are they’re given a gift because of me,” Bolling said.

The last big push to beef up Virginia ethics laws was in 2010 in response to a scandal involving former delegate Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News). Hamilton was convicted of steering a $500,000 earmark to Old Dominion University in exchange for a $40,000-a-year job for himself at the school.

The scandal inspired a flurry of bills intended to strengthen ethics rules, but very few passed. Among those killed was a measure that would have banned gifts worth more than $100. No changes were made to the state’s campaign contribution laws, which allow unlimited donations as long as they are disclosed.

Nine states have total gift bans, making them what the NCSL refers to as “no-cup-of-coffee” states.

On the other end of the spectrum are 10 other states, Virginia among them, that allow unlimited gifts as long as the item is not intended to influence official action. In practice, that means if the official’s conscience is clear, he or she can accept gifts of any value.

The rest of the states allow gifts but with limits, such as caps on how much an individual donor can give an official over a calendar year. The limits range from $3 in Iowa to $500 in Texas, according to NCSL figures.

There are quirky exceptions that make gift laws different in all 50 states. Florida, for instance, allows no gifts — except on the opening day of its legislative session, when officials may accept bouquets.

“Just about every state has some limit, but it’s a convoluted thing,” said Peggy Kerns, director of the NCSL’s Center for Ethics in Government. “In Minnesota, they may be a no-cup-of-coffee-state, meaning lobbyists can’t buy a legislator a cup of coffee. But if you speak at a meal, it’s a loophole. . . . They have a reception and everybody goes around the room and says their name and that qualifies.”

The loopholes in Virginia’s gift and disclosure laws make them outdated and ripe for abuse, said Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), who in 2012 pushed unsuccessfully for a bill that would have required public officials to disclose any tax credits they claim.

“Virginia’s disclosure laws are like Swiss cheese,” he said. “When I read these, it looks like they were drafted in the 1960s.”

Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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