But the lobbyists, who are required under state law to disclose gifts and entertainment worth more than $50, divided the cost of his $83 meal — there was no need to include his wife’s meal — among the nine clients they represented before the General Assembly session. That pushed the official value of the gift to a little more than $9, so no disclosure was required.
Lobbyists who wine and dine state officials often report each meal as a gift provided by multiple clients, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. Some say the intention is to treat entertainment expenses as a basic cost of doing business, such as lodging in Richmond during the session, and to have all clients bear part of it.
But spreading entertainment costs across multiple clients also understates the value of gifts provided to legislators, who base their disclosure reports on gift summaries that lobbyists provide at the end of the year.
Although the practice is not necessarily intended to dodge reporting requirements, it is drawing more scrutiny as Richmond looks to tighten ethics rules in response to a gifts scandal that has consumed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his family and spilled into the race to succeed him.
The firm Hunton & Williams spent $427 on dinner for three in December, or about $142 per guest. But split by six of the firm’s clients, the gift value, for reporting purposes, was about $24. The cost of a $7,000 Hunton & Williams reception for 45 guests in January was more than $150 a head. But with nine clients splitting the bill, the gift value was less than $20 a head. A representative for Hunton & Williams agreed to look into the reporting practices but did not respond by press time.
When asked about the VPAP data Wednesday, some of the most senior Republicans in state government said legislators need to examine, if not close, the check-splitting loophole.
“While this practice may comply with the letter of the law, it certainly violates the spirit of the law,” Lt. Gov Bill Bolling (R) said. “It is definitely a loophole that needs to be closed. Unfortunately, as we start digging into these things, I think we are going to find a lot of situations like this.”
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said the legislature will probably scrutinize that loophole when it reconvenes in January. “I think this is an area at which we should certainly look closely,” he said. “We need to ensure that our reporting requirements are strong and clear enough, but also simple, easy to understand and transparent.”
Virginia has some of the nation’s most permissive ethics laws, allowing officials to accept gifts of unlimited size. Yet the state also has had a proud history of clean government, something widely attributed to the requirement that officials report gifts worth more than $50.