Ethics, mental health bills advance in Virginia General Assembly

Virginia lawmakers moved forward Monday on an ethics law overhaul and mental health legislation, two causes given urgency by recent events.

The Senate passed the ethics package with only one dissenting vote, despite grumbling by some lawmakers that the legislation is poorly designed. A similar bill was approved on a preliminary vote in the House. The mental health bill passed the Senate with no opposition and was backed by the House on a preliminary vote.

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Both the House and Senate ethics bills require lawmakers and public officials to disclose gifts to their immediate families, mandate gift disclosures twice rather than once a year, and cap tangible gifts from lobbyists at $250. The House version extends the cap to those who employ lobbyists and anyone contracting with an official’s agency. Both bills would establish an ethics advisory council to evaluate disclosure forms, provide advice and suggest further changes.

House lawmakers in both parties began working on an ethics compromise before the legislature convened, spurred by the federal corruption investigation of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife. The couple, accused of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans in exchange for assisting a dietary supplement company, is scheduled to go to trial in July.

“I’m going to vote for this, but this isn’t going to stop any of the problems that we had in the past, not going to stop any of the problems that we have in the future,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). He said the bill would not have prevented the public scandals or the undiscovered misdeeds that had occurred in his four decades in the legislature. But he concluded, “This is the best we got.”

Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) tried unsuccessfully to tighten some of the bill’s restrictions. He would have applied the disclosure requirements and gift caps for immediate family to all children, regardless of whether they live with the lawmaker or official. He wanted gifts that lawmakers can extend to friends or guests to be reported. Perhaps most significantly, he wanted the state’s new ethics council to approve all travel gifts valued at $1,000 or more and to bar any trips that are not educational, informational or beneficial to the commonwealth.

All of those amendments were voted down. “This falls short,” Ebbin said before voting in favor of the bill. He said that there is “a lot of room for improvement” and that he hoped improvements would be made when the House and Senate bills are reconciled.

Only one senator voted against the legislation. John C. Watkins (R-Powhatan) said the bill was a wrongheaded reaction to the McDonnell situation that would scare non-politicians away from public service.

“We are dealing with this in a knee-jerk fashion,” he warned. “We are reacting to the fourth estate. We are reacting to an immediate situation that, with just a little bit of clarity, could have been cleared up. We all know what happened. Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

Mental health reform has been championed this year by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath). A few months ago, his 24-year-old son attacked the senator violently before killing himself.

“One thing I’ve learned here [is] not to take things personally,” Deeds told the Senate. “Honestly, I can’t do that here. I can’t do that with this bill.”

The legislation is intended to close holes that his son’s case exposed in the state’s system for handling mental health crises. Before attacking his father, Austin “Gus” Deeds had been under an emergency custody order but was not committed because a local Community Services Board official said there were no available psychiatric beds. The order’s six-hour time limit ran out, and father and son were sent home. The attack occurred the next morning.

The Deeds bill would create an online registry of available beds, extend the emergency custody order to 24 hours and require a state facility to accept a patient if no bed was found within eight hours.

He said that after his son’s death, many people told him of similar experiences.

“This bill before you is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Our treatment of the mentally ill . . . is just desperately broken, not just here in Virginia but across the country.”

Michael Laris contributed to this report.

 
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