Va. lawmakers scrutinize past gifts as they prepare ethics legislation

Members of the current Virginia legislature accepted more than $260,000 in gifts last year, a steady stream of golf games, concert tickets and other valuables that is under scrutiny as lawmakers move toward stricter ethics laws.

Lawmakers are receiving less valuable gifts, but more frequently, than they did four years ago, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. That shift might be in part a reaction to the investigation of Robert F. McDonnell (R), the former governor who is facing federal prosecution over expensive gifts and large loans he and his family received from a businessman.

Ethics reform efforts underway after the McDonnell scandal could make illegal some of the gifts reported. Lawmakers are moving toward a $250 cap on gifts from lobbyists and possibly from anyone with business before the state. Under state law, all gifts are allowed as long as those worth more than $50 are reported annually.

But a bipartisan compromise making its way through both chambers of the legislature carves out a large exception to the $250 limit for “intangible” benefits, including entertainment, food and event tickets.

The average gift last year was valued at $267, just over the proposed limit. That’s far less than in 2011, when the average gift to a lawmaker was valued at $467. But nearly 1,000 gifts were given last year, compared with about half that number four years ago.

Dominion Virginia Power was the biggest gift-giver last year, doling out $30,058 in presents to members of both major parties. The giant utility company took several lawmakers to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga. Others went on an economic development trip to California, and many more were treated to Washington Redskins football games or steakhouse dinners.

The Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association came in second, doling out gift boxes to dozens of lawmakers. This is the kind of “trinket” that legislators say they want to keep from creating legal headaches under the stricter rules. Some lawmakers objected to the box’s $202 price tag, writing on their disclosure forms that they did not use the coupons inside.

Gifts to Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) were valued at more than those to any other state lawmaker, in large part because of a $7,600 trip to Seoul he took at the expense of the South Korean government. Marsden has been one of the most vocal advocates of adding the Korea-preferred designation “East Sea” to the Sea of Japan in Virginia textbooks, an issue that has become a headache for Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

Del. James W. Morefield (Tazewell), a young Republican from southwest Virginia, managed to rank third — just behind House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) — after a $9,812 “fact-finding mission to Israel” paid for by an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Virginia has some of the laxest ethics laws in the country, and Democrats and Republicans regularly accept generous gifts from supporters and businesses. In his final disclosure, McDonnell reported receiving $28,000 in personal gifts last year.

Two ethics measures passed the Virginia Senate on Thursday. One requires the governor and attorney general to disclose gifts to immediate family members. Lawmakers are working on a similar requirement for themselves. Under current law, reporting gifts to relatives is not required. The other would ban the governor from knowingly soliciting or accepting gifts from anyone seeking loans or grants from the economic development fund.

McAuliffe has imposed a broader ban on himself and his staff, capping all gifts at $100 and gifts from lobbyists at $25.

The bipartisan reform package has yet to pass either the Senate or the House. Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said Thursday that he is still gathering support and that he expected the topic might be part of the sermon during lawmakers’ regular prayer meeting Monday evening.

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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