McAuliffe does not make substantive changes to Virginia ethics bill


Gov. Terry McAuliffe addresses the Virginia Education Association Delegate Assembly in Roanoke in March. (Stephanie Klein-Davis/AP)

Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday made only technical fixes to an ethics bill that critics had called a tepid response to a gifts scandal that engulfed former governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.

McAuliffe (D) made 22 amendments to the bill, none aimed at making the legislation tougher than what the House and Senate had approved. The changes primarily corrected drafting errors.

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor was deferring to the General Assembly by not tinkering with the substance of the bill. He said McAuliffe — who signed an executive order on Inauguration Day that banned himself, his family and members of his executive staff from accepting gifts worth more than $100 — still hopes to work with the legislature to strengthen rules later.

“At the request of members of the General Assembly, the governor did not strengthen the bill as much as he would have liked to,” Coy said. “It’s not as strong as he would have liked, but it’s a compromise and it’s a step forward, a foundation for future reforms.”

The governor’s move was a disappointment to advocates for more sweeping ethics reform.

“I think that’s a missed opportunity,” said Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax).

Petersen had written to McAuliffe after the legislation passed the General Assembly, urging him to amend it so that “intangible gifts,” such as free trips and meals, would not be exempt from gift limits. Petersen also asked the governor to give more teeth to a conflict of interest and ethics advisory council created by the bill, providing it with subpoena power. He also wanted to give the council authority to forbid free trips with no educational purpose.

Republicans and Democrats vowed to reform the state’s unusually lax ethics law this year after an ethics scandal consumed McDonnell’s final year in office. The McDonnells accepted more than $165,000 in luxury gifts and loans from a Virginia businessman whose nutritional supplement they helped promote.

McDonnell (R) apologized for embarrassing the state and repaid the gifts and loans, but he has said that he did not provide state favors to Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Shortly after McDonnell left office in January, he and his wife were indicted on federal corruption charges. They have pleaded not guilty.

Under current law, Virginia office holders may accept gifts of any size as long as they disclose any worth more than $50. Gifts to immediate family members need not be disclosed. That loophole gained attention during the McDonnell scandal because some of Williams’s gifts were to McDonnell’s family members rather than to the governor himself.

The General Assembly tightened those rules somewhat with the legislation that McAuliffe amended Monday. Lawmakers limited the value of gifts any individual may give to an office holder to $250 a year. They also closed the loophole that allowed gifts to family members to go unreported.

But the legislature failed to put limits on intangible gifts, including meals, transportation and trips, including one last year to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga. Legislators also opted against strengthening stock-reporting requirements in a way that would have blocked the kind of financial maneuvering that federal prosecutors allege Maureen McDonnell undertook to evade disclosure requirements. McAuliffe also chose not to strengthen those provisions.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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