Virginia lawmakers detail ethics reform idea

A bipartisan group of Virginia House members unveiled an ethics reform proposal Tuesday morning that would significantly change the state’s lax ethics laws.

Major reforms include a $250 cap on tangible gifts to officials and their immediate family members from lobbyists or people with business before the state; a ban on solicitation of those gifts; the requirement that family members’ finances and gifts be disclosed; and the creation of an ethics commission that would provide guidance on issues that may pose a conflict of interest.

“What we have really tried to do here is take the best parts of our current system, which is fairly strict reporting accountability, and in targeted areas, we’ve really tried to beef that up and really get at some of the problems,” House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said at a news conference with Republican and Democratic leaders.

The attention to ethics reform has heightened, with outgoing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) remaining under federal investigation over his relationship with the chief executive of the dietary-supplement company Star Scientific.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that some of the events of the last year have kind of catapulted us to this place,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville).

The compromise does not address campaign finance, including the personal use of campaign funds, and some gifts from individuals with a stake in state policy would still be allowed (food, travel and outings paid for by lobbyists would be permitted). The ethics commission would serve as a resource more than a watchdog. It would not investigate conflicts of interest; rather, it would alert the official involved and provide advice. The commission would conduct annual online ethics training for all elected officials and advise the General Assembly on ethics legislation.

The requirement to report investments only above $10,000 would be unchanged, although reports would be required twice a year rather than once. Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) said the change was meant in part to deal with situations in which officials or their family members buy stock and divest before the end of the year, as first lady Maureen McDonnell did in 2011 and 2012.

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) has proposed a $100 cap on gifts, which he plans to impose on himself as well.

“We just tried to find a number that seemed like it was low enough to ensure that there was not largesse being bestowed on someone in the form of gifts, while at the same time making sure that it wasn’t so low that it was at the point of being ridiculous,” said Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). “We didn ’t want to capture the trinkets.”

Cox predicted “broad bipartisan buy-in in the House” for the deal, which was hashed out by a small group of legislators after the Republican leader approached Toscano in the fall.

Some lawmakers in both the House and the Senate said they were unaware of the deal until Monday afternoon and had reservations about its particulars.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) attended the news conference and told reporters afterward that although he “applauded” the House leadership, “the process calls not only for bipartisan support but for bicameral support.” He expressed concern over whether merit-based college scholarships would count as gifts. He also said that paid trips for officials should be restricted.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said Tuesday that he will sponsor companion legislation in the upper chamber.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
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