A year after McDonnells’ gifts scandal was revealed, lobbyists’ assembly spending dips

August 26, 2014

Lobbyists spent 10 percent less on wining and dining Virginia lawmakers during this year’s legislative session compared with last year, but it’s unclear whether that was a result of the scandal over gifts accepted by former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his family.

Although overall spending fell from $701,144, adjusted for inflation, to $639,739, the number of events that were reported rose 15 percent from 804 to 925. The data come from an analysis released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in politics.

The report compares spending during the 2013 session, when details about the McDonnell scandal were revealed, and this year’s session, during which Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were charged and the General Assembly debated and revised the state’s ethics laws.

One explanation for the increase in the number of events and overall lower amount of money spent could be that the gatherings were less posh. Lobbyists might have expanded the legal practice of spreading entertainment costs across multiple clients.

That practice, which some call a loophole, artificially increases the number of events and reduces the amount of each meal. Lobbyists must reveal the names of lawmakers who attend their events only if the average value of a meal or ticket exceeds $50.

List of gifts given to the McDonnell family from Jonnie Williams.

For example, nine lobbying firms sponsored a Jan. 15 dinner for House Democrats at Sam Miller’s restaurant in downtown Richmond. Of the 51 people attending, 29 were lawmakers, according to disclosure from Albers & Co., which revealed more than required when it reported that the total cost of the event — $5,526 – was split among nine sponsors.

Albers’s portion, $614, was further shared among five clients: Lilly, Automated HealthCare Solutions, Google, Kool Smiles and IMS Health, making each responsible for $122.80. Only Albers and Vectre reported the dinner – the seven other sponsors were silent, the VPAP data shows.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said last year that lawmakers would probably scrutinize the loophole when they met this year, but no changes were made in the law.

“It’s a challenge to find the type of balance that the legislators sought between a transparency-first approach that emphasizes accountability and a heavy handed, top-down everyone-looking-over-their-shoulder approach, so to speak,” said Howell’s spokesman, Matthew Moran.

At the time, lawmakers said they worried that “gotcha” disclosure requirements could discourage public service.

The McDonnell scandal highlighted a different loophole that was closed during this year’s session. Gifts to family members previously did not have to be reported.

The McDonnell trial, now its fifth week, revolves around charges that McDonnell traded the prestige of his office for $165,000 in gifts — many unreported — from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who was the chief executive of the dietary-supplement company Star Scientific.

Virginia law distinguishes between “intangible” gifts, such as dinners and golf outings, and “tangible,” or lasting, gifts, including plaques and mementos.

For the reporting period covering the 2013 session, 390 gifts were reported totaling $62,670. Although the number and value of gifts dropped significantly for the reporting period covering the 2014 cycle — 95 gifts totaled $16,916 — that’s likely because last year was an exceptional year: Three groups gave lawmakers particularly pricey gifts.

Wawa gave coolers filled with coupons and gift cards worth $51.71, the Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association gave a gift box worth $202.28 and Health Diagnostic Laboratory offered free health screenings worth $219.30.

Although lawmakers did receive gifts during the year-long 2014 reporting period, VPAP’s analysis shows that when the General Assembly was actually in session — and debating a new $250 limit on this type of gift that ultimately passed — none of them was given anything tangible that met the $50 reporting threshold.

In May 2013, Howell received the most expensive gift given all year: a ceramic eagle valued at $286. At the time, the token was legal, but it would not be under the new law.

Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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