RICHMOND — A prominent Senate Republican on Monday questioned whether Gov. Terry McAuliffe has walked away from one of his most prominent campaign pledges and executive orders — that members of his administration not accept gifts worth more than $100.
On the floor of the Senate on Monday, Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham) asked how the administration squared that promise with news that a McAuliffe Cabinet member had accepted an invitation from the Washington Redskins to watch a playoff game from one of the team’s luxury boxes.
“Certainly when it comes to ethics, there ought to be some level of accountability,” Obenshain said. “If he’s going to include it in the second executive order, . . . we ought to know whether it’s still in effect.”
McAuliffe (D) was elected in 2013 at a time of heightened attention to ethics in Richmond. Then-governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) was at the center of a growing scandal over $177,000 in luxury gifts and loans, which a Richmond businessman had provided to him and his family.
Just moments after his swearing-in, McAuliffe signed an executive order imposing a $100 cap on gifts to himself, his family and his administration.
This month, the secretary of commerce and labor, Maurice Jones, and an aide accepted the use of one of the team’s boxes, which are listed online for $18,000 to $24,000 for regular season games, the Associated Press reported last week.
Jones did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment in response to Obenshain’s remarks. Obenshain also sent a letter to McAuliffe pressing for more details, including how many tickets were accepted by Jones, his aide or any other members of the administration; whether the governor considered acceptance of the tickets a violation of his executive order; and if so, what steps would be taken to address the violation.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said Jones had sought and received permission from a state ethics council before accepting the gift.
Coy said that Jones and the aide had used the box to promote the state’s economy, inviting business leaders considering expanding in Virginia to watch the game with them. Jones also had used the occasion to meet with officials from the team, which McAuliffe has been trying to lure from Maryland to Virginia.
“He attended that game in his official capacity as an opportunity to advance an important economic development project to the Commonwealth, and he did so after following the process established by the law and the advice he got as a result of that process,” Coy said.
McAuliffe’s executive order provides an exception for attending any events that serve a “legitimate public purpose,” which includes activities designed to promote economic development.
The controversy surrounding Jones’s acceptance of the tickets suggests that Richmond remains unsure about ethical do’s and don’ts in the post-McDonnell era. The General Assembly has twice pledged to make wide-ranging reforms, first in the session after McDonnell and his wife were indicted, and again after the couple’s corruption convictions, which are under appeal.
Once allowed to receive gifts of unlimited value from people with business before the state, lawmakers agreed last year to limit what any individual can give to $100 a year.
But enormous loopholes remain. It is still perfectly legal for most elected officials to use campaign cash for personal expenses. The practice is prohibited only when an official is closing out the account because he or she is not seeking re-election.
Two bills proposed this year aim to close that loophole. One, brought by Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax), would prohibit the conversion of campaign funds for personal use. Another, sponsored by Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), would require the politicians to pay income tax on any funds converted for personal use.