Va. names head of new ethics council formed in wake of McDonnell case

Virginia has hired an executive director to run a new ethics board intended to implement and police reforms approved earlier this year in the wake of the gifts scandal surrounding former governor Robert F. McDonnell and his family.

The news comes as the second week in the federal corruption trial of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, comes to a close. The two face charges of receiving tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from a wealthy businessman in exchange for official acts.

Chris Piper, a longtime employee of the Virginia State Board of Elections, will move to the Division of Legislative Services, where the board — the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council — will be housed. The Division of Legislative Services is a nonpartisan agency of the General Assembly.

Piper is credited with helping expand the state program for filing campaign finance forms electronically, the Virginia Public Access Project said Thursday in a statement about his hiring.

One of the ethics board’s biggest challenges will be determining how to collect public officials’ financial disclosure forms and make it easy to analyze such data as which companies are giving lawmakers gifts while seeking breaks on regulation.

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

Laws ramping up disclosure rules were passed in the frenzied close of this year’s regular legislative session amid public pressure for changes after the McDonnells were accused of trading the prestige of the governor’s office for gifts and loans.

The goal was to gain online access, in a single place, to many thousands more documents than are now available. But because officials have been struggling with the potentially expensive reality of carrying out the law, they are considering a simpler, less-searchable system, one that would make scrutiny more difficult.

The board will determine the logistics of gathering and organizing as many as 40,000 forms from lawmakers, the governor and his Cabinet, judges, lobbyists, and officials from hundreds of local municipalities and boards.

Their task is further complicated by Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s veto of $150,000 budgeted for the program, according to the Public Access Project’s statement. “McAuliffe has said he wants to scrap the ethics law passed this year and has vowed to introduce a tougher version in the 2015 General Assembly,” the group said.

The 15-member council has not yet started its work. So far, six members have been named: state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), former Republican senator John Chichester, Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) and former Republican delegate Bill Janis, as well as two citizens, John Bennett and Bill Leighty, VPAP said.

The House of Delegates can appoint two more citizens. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), the Virginia Association of Counties and the Virginia Municipal League get one appointment each, and McAuliffe (D) gets four.

Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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