RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe set out to impose stricter ethics standards on Richmond, but he seems to have gone farther than he intended.
McAuliffe (D) made an amendment to an ethics bill, seeking to limit the value of gifts that any individual lobbyist can shower on a single public official to an aggregate of $100 a year. Instead, the amendment seems to impose a $100 lifetime limit.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) uncovered the error Monday, just as legislators were preparing to return to Richmond on Wednesday for their annual “veto session,” where they consider action on the vetoes and amendments the governor made to bills passed during the General Assembly session.
Gilbert alerted the governor’s office to the issue on Tuesday, and all sides said a fix can be made Wednesday — either through some unusual parliamentary maneuver or by calling a mini special session that would wrap up in a matter of hours.
The glitch is only the latest twist to Richmond’s long-running ethics saga, which began in 2013 with a gubernatorial gifts scandal and has forced lawmakers accustomed to unlimited goodies to tighten rules two years in a row.
It also provided fodder for Republicans to criticize McAuliffe. They said he should be mortified by the error, given the prominence he has given to the ethics issue following the conviction of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, on federal corruption charges in September.
“If he spent as much time working on drafting this amendment as he has bragging about this amendment, we wouldn’t have the problems we’re having now,” said Del. Gregory D. Habeeb (R-Salem). “A bill that he claims is one of his legislative priorities — he can’t even get the words right.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the ethics bill that the General Assembly cobbled together in the final hour of the regular session was loaded with mistakes, requiring the governor to make “more than 50 technical corrections.”
“There were many glaring deficiencies and errors and oversights in the bill,” Coy said.
If the governor introduced an error of his own — a point Coy did not entirely concede — he did so while addressing one of the bill’s more glaring loopholes: As passed, the legislation would have allowed public officials to accept an unlimited succession of gifts from individual lobbyists or government contractors as long as no single gift was valued at more than $100.
Legislators opposed to an aggregate limit said they were concerned about having to keep track of every coffee mug, T-shirt and dinner that lobbyists or interest groups provide for fear that they will exceed the $100 limit without realizing it.
McAuliffe wanted an annual, aggregate $100 cap, the same as he imposed on himself and his staff by way of an executive order signed shortly after he took the oath of office in January 2014.
But when he inserted language to make the $100 limit an aggregate one, he did not add any reference to a time period over which those gifts could given. Current law, which has a $250 cap, refers to gifts given “within any calendar year.”
Coy said there was “room for disagreement” on the effect of McAuliffe’s amendment, suggesting that it might be understood to be an annual limit. But he said the administration supported making what he said would be “a very simple fix.”
“There’s absolutely no reason why we cannot end the day tomorrow with an aggregate, annual $100 gift cap,” Coy said.
There are several routes to change the bill at this stage, one that would involve a relatively rare parliamentary move. Another would require the governor to send down a new bill, to be taken up in a special session that would convene Wednesday immediately upon adjournment of the veto session.
“It’s a hiccup,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “This ain’t something where you call ‘60 Minutes.’”