McAuliffe imposes far-reaching gift limit on himself and his staff

The Democrat was sworn in and gave his inaugural address on Saturday afternoon in Richmond, Va. (Sandi Moynihan/Virginia General Assembly)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order Saturday imposing sweeping new standards for ethics in government intended to prevent the kind of gifts scandal that engulfed his predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell.

McAuliffe’s order imposes a strict $100 gift cap on himself and the executive branch. It establishes an ethics commission, including $100,000 in start-up funds, with the authority to monitor compliance and recommend discipline for violators.

The order defines “gifts” and “family members” in ways clearly meant to prohibit the kinds of payments, services, goods and loans that McDonnell (R) and his family received from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams Sr.

The state’s lax laws on gifts have become a pressing concern because of theMcDonnell gifts scandal, and McAuliffe’s order goes much further than a bipartisan ethics deal being considered in the General Assembly.

The ethics bill being introduced in the House this week imposes a $250 cap on gifts from lobbyists or others with business before the state, but excludes “intangible” items such as food, travel and entertainment. Unlimited gifts from non-lobbyists would still be allowed.

Some rank-and-file lawmakers have criticized the bipartisan proposal as not strict enough. McAuliffe’s order could put pressure on the legislature to do more and avoid a scenario in which low-level executive branch employees face tougher gift restrictions than elected members of the General Assembly.

Because it is an executive order, McAuliffe’s pronouncement does not carry the force of law and excludes the legislature as well as the offices of attorney general and lieutenant governor. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said his office will issue a similar policy this week.

The new rules would change the way politics have operated in Virginia for generations. They appear to prohibit or limit a wide range of gifts, including free Redskins tickets for the governor and expensive dinners with lobbyists. Family vacations on someone else’s dime are out for McAuliffe, as are free private-plane rides for personal trips. (The plane trips are still likely to be allowed for political travel when disclosed as in-kind campaign donations.)

The order establishes a three-member Executive Branch Ethics Commission that will investigate alleged violations and recommend disciplinary action, including suspension or termination.

McAuliffe’s $100 limit applies to family members as well as officials and staff, including extended family if there’s reason to believe that a gift was given because of the relative’s position. Gifts from lobbyists are banned altogether, although anything under $25 is not classified as a gift. Travel that does not serve a “legitimate public purpose” falls under the cap, as do loans, lodging, meals, services, special discounts and entertainment unless it is a ticket to a Virginia school or government event.

Gifts from personal friends, private business relationships and family members are excluded from the cap. So are financial aid, invitations from an official or candidate to political events, tickets that go unused, gifts that are returned unused within 60 days, retirement gifts from government agencies, honorary degrees, awards from civic or religious groups and competition prizes.

The order also includes remarkably specific language regarding private commercial transactions that likely would have forbidden a loan that Williams made to a business partnership involving McDonnell and his sister that the ex-governor has maintained did not need to be disclosed under current law.

Spokesman Brian Coy said McAuliffe is open to amending the order if necessary. The commission will recommend adjustments at least once a year.

“It’s something no one has ever really done before” in Virginia, Coy said. “If there are things we need to fix, we will fix them.”

The order, which fulfills a promise McAuliffe made during his campaign, is one of four the governor signed on his first day in office.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
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