Ethics law addresses Virginia officials’ financial dealings, but database is a tall order

Virginia ethics reforms intended to shine light on public officials’ practice of accepting lavish gifts — like the ones that landed former governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife in federal court — could have the opposite effect.

Under a new law, the public should be able to scrutinize a wide variety of officeholders’ financial data and gifts they receive with a quick check online. But unanswered questions about how the electronic clearinghouse will be set up could make it harder, not easier, to see the information.

At stake is the public’s right to know things such as whether their lawmakers are invested in companies seeking to ease industry regulations, or how much Dominion Virginia Power spent wooing lawmakers last year. For the record, it was $33,164.

The legislation was passed in the frenzied final days of the legislative session amid public pressure for reform after the McDonnells were accused of trading the prestige of the governor’s office for gifts and loans.

The goal was to gain online access in a single place to many thousands more documents than are currently available. But officials are struggling with the difficult and potentially very expensive reality of carrying out the law. As a result, they are considering a simpler, less searchable system that would make it more difficult to scrutinize the records.

“I think most of the public’s attention, press attention and, frankly, most of the committee’s attention was on what should the rules be, not practically how do we get these things filed and have them accessible,” said Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond), the Democrats’ lead negotiator on the issue. “That’s the problem with trying to find a one-size-fits-all system when you’ve taken six weeks trying to define a gift.”

The General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) trumpeted the law as a victory for ethics reform, but the commonwealth is grappling with the logistics of gathering and organizing as many as 40,000 forms from lawmakers, the governor and his Cabinet, judges, lobbyists and officials from hundreds of local municipalities and boards.

“It’s quite involved,” said Robert L. Tavenner, the director of the state Division of Legislative Services. “The more I read it, the more I eat Tums.”

The decisions will ultimately fall to the as-yet-unnamed members of an ethics council. Among the 15-member board’s tasks are to decide how the forms will be filed, who will collect them, how the public will access them and whether any personal data should be redacted.

It’s unclear how much it would cost. Although lawmakers initially said the move would be revenue neutral, a fully searchable database could cost millions to create and maintain.

The information is key to helping residents understand the role money plays in the day-to-day workings of their government.

Using data currently organized by Virginia Public Access Project, it’s easy to see that Dominion spent $33,164 in gifts to lawmakers last year.

Another click of the mouse shows the top recipients of the power giant’s largesse: Sens. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) and Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) each enjoyed a $3,776 trip to Augusta and a $96 dinner.

Del. Matthew James (D-Portsmouth) came in a close second with his own Augusta trip, this time costing $2,387, two tickets to a Redskins game at $545 and a $146 steak dinner at Morton’s in Richmond.

Aggregating the data and putting it in an easy-to-use format is currently possible because 80 percent of the state’s registered lobbyists file electronically though a sophisticated and pricey system set up by the secretary of the commonwealth under McDonnell (R). Expanding that service to the additional officeholders who are subject to the law, however, is an enormous undertaking.

The gains could be lost “as state officials grapple with implementing ethics legislation passed earlier this year by the General Assembly,” the Public Access Project’s board wrote in a statement posted on its Web site last month.

Lobbyists aren’t the only ones who have to file financial-disclosure and conflict-of-interest forms. So do 40 delegates, 100 senators, about 9,000 appointees to state boards and agency heads, and as many as 15,000 local elected and appointed officials. And they all have to file twice a year under the new law, instead of once.

Most of those groups file electronic PDF forms or paper forms, which are difficult to search and manipulate. Most of the information is restricted, and gatekeepers admit that they often alert officials when the public comes knocking.

Putting all that information into an electronic database — like the one the Public Access Project uses for a narrow selection of officials and lobbyists — would require extensive work.

Del. C. Todd Gilbert (Shenandoah), the lead negotiator for Republicans, envisioned a similar but more comprehensive system.

“The type of database we touted to the public is one that is user friendly and searchable, and that would be my intention going forward. If that doesn’t materialize, I’ll be the first one working to make sure it does happen,” he said.

That’s where the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council comes in.

The law gives the council vast powers not only to dictate how the database should work, but also to police the process.

“The Council will review and post online disclosure forms filed by lobbyists and persons subject to the conflict of interests acts and provide formal opinions and informal advice, education, and training,” according to a summary of the law.

McAuliffe, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and the Senate Committee on Rules each get to appoint four members to the council. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), the Virginia Association of Counties and the Virginia Municipal League get one appointment each. The council is supposed to have the database in place by July 1, 2015, and start accepting documents by December of that year.

Gilbert and McClellan said they’re open to floating changes to the law if needed.

“Once session starts you’re always at the mercy of the clock,” Gilbert said. “We think we came out with decent product, but that’s why we come back every year, so we can tweak it.”

Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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