RICHMOND — Republican leaders in Virginia’s House of Delegates announced Tuesday that they do not support calling a special legislative session to tackle ethics reform.
The GOP leaders made the announcement one day after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) publicly pressed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to call legislators back to Richmond to tighten gift laws, which have come into focus in the past four months amid a gift scandal involving the governor and his family.
Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee to succeed McDonnell, said Monday that the legislature must act now to restore trust in state government. McDonnell has said he is working on reform proposals but does not see a need to bring the General Assembly into session before January, the month he leaves office.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and other Republican leaders said in a written statement Tuesday that they do not favor a special session.
“We agree with both Governor McDonnell and Attorney General Cuccinelli that serious steps need to be taken to reform Virginia’s disclosure and transparency laws,” the statement said. “As previously stated, we are committed to seeking the strong reforms necessary to guarantee the integrity of that system.
“While we share the goals of the Attorney General, we believe it is in the best interests of the Commonwealth to consider reforms during the 2014 regular session, a short five months from now. These are very complicated and serious issues that deserve our full and undivided attention. Addressing them during a regular session will allow us to carefully consider each proposal, gather input and feedback, and move forward in a responsible manner.”
The governor has the power to call a special session, something the General Assembly cannot do on its own without the approval of a super-majority in both chambers.
In addition to Howell, the statement was issued by Majority Leader M. Kirkland “Kirk” Cox (R-Colonial Heights), caucus chairman Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax) and Majority Whip Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas).
Gifts to the McDonnell family have been the subject of intense scrutiny since late March, when The Post reported that he and first lady Maureen McDonnell had promoted a nutritional supplement made by a businessman who picked up the $15,000 catering tab at the wedding of a McDonnell daughter.
McDonnell said at the time that the gift did not have to be disclosed because it was given to his daughter, not him. Virginia’s ethics laws, among the most lax in the nation, allow officeholders to accept gifts of unlimited value as long as they report any worth more than $50. Gifts to immediately family do not have to be disclosed.
Since then, The Post has reported that Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. has provided a $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor, a $15,000 Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree for the first lady and a $10,000 engagement gift for another daughter. He also provided a $70,000 loan to a real estate company owned by the governor and his sister and a $50,000 loan to Maureen McDonnell.
State and federal investigators are probing the McDonnells’ ties to Williams.
The governor has said that Williams received no state favors in exchange for his gifts and that any efforts to promote Star and its supplement, Anatabloc, were in line with what he and the first lady would do to boost any Virginia-based enterprise. But last month, McDonnell apologized for the scandal and said that he and his family were returning the loans and gifts.
Cuccinelli has his own ties to Star and Williams. Cuccinelli initially failed to report substantial stock holdings in the company and about $4,500 in gifts. Cuccinelli has attributed the lapses to oversights. A Richmond prosecutor investigated Cuccinelli’s disclosure reports and found no evidence that he had broken the law.