Virginia legislators reported receiving $211,000 in gifts and trips from companies and outside groups last year, a jump of 50 percent over 2003, according to figures to be released today by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit research group in Richmond.
Members of Virginia's General Assembly were given watches and Redskins tickets, were hosted on hunting adventures and were taken on tours to Taiwan, Ukraine and Germany, according to the project's database of gifts from corporations, lobbyists and political groups.
The information is compiled from the legislators' public disclosure forms on file in Richmond.
The top recipient, according to the project, was the minority leader of the House of Delegates, Franklin P. Hall (D-Richmond), who reported receiving a total of $14,578 in NASCAR tickets, dinners, trips to Kiev and Taipei and other items. Members of both parties were among the top recipients.
The race tickets were provided to Hall, and a number of other legislators, by Altria, the parent company of Richmond-based cigarette maker Philip Morris, which was the top corporate giver. Hall's international travel was covered by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation and the Washington-based Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States.
Hall said he does not believe that corporations provide lawmakers with entertainment and other perks in a bid to buy influence. He said policy was not on Altria's agenda at the NASCAR race.
"They didn't discuss issues at all. That was just a fun event," he said. "A whole lot of people accepted those invitations, and it was a good evening."
Dawn Schneider, spokeswoman for Altria, said NASCAR tickets and other entertainment are part of a good corporate citizen's public policy "engagement process," and "the involvement is not predicated on an expectation."
The top giver, the Virginia Sheriffs' Association, lobbied successfully last year for raises for deputies and took lawmakers on a bear-hunting trip to Quebec in May.
State legislators and others visited with cabinet members on the Taiwan trip, Hall said. They were briefed on Taiwan's face-off with China, which considers the island democracy a wayward Chinese province. The United States is a key provider of military technology to Taiwan, and leaders there eagerly cultivate American officials.
"We went over to one of the islands just a few miles from mainland China. . . . We went into some of their bunkers, and it was an informative trip," Hall said.
Virginia's rules on accepting gifts are looser than those in Congress and many states. The House of Representatives, for instance, sets a limit of less than $100 on gifts from any one entity in a single year. Virginia has no limits but requires that gifts be disclosed.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) went to Wolf Trap and took in a Redskins game courtesy of Dominion, and to a NASCAR event and two dinners on Altria.
"These are two of the largest corporations in Virginia," he said, adding that it's to be expected that firms with large interests "would be more involved."
"Nobody expects anything in return. It's a chance to talk. That's what we do," he said.