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.