RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe established a commission Thursday with a broad mandate to erase the stain of the McDonnell scandal with “an enduring culture of integrity.”
The 10-person Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government has a charge as expansive as its name: to study and recommend changes in the laws and procedures governing ethics, campaign finance, redistricting, judicial appointments and gubernatorial term limits.
McAuliffe (D) unveiled the commission just weeks after former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of corruption related to their acceptance of $177,000 in luxury gifts, vacations and sweetheart loans from a businessman seeking their help to promote a dietary supplement.
“This bipartisan commission will our be our first step toward restoring Virginians’ trust in their government,” McAuliffe said during a news conference at the Capitol. “It is my hope that the leaders who sit on it will recommend a comprehensive approach to ensuring that no power or influence weighs heavier with our commonwealth’s elected officials than the will of the people who hired them to serve.”
The commission will be co-chaired by Bill Bolling, a former Republican lieutenant governor, and Rick Boucher, a Democrat who represented southwestern Virginia in Congress for nearly three decades.
Bolling and Boucher said they plan to recommend a package of ethics reforms by late December, ahead of the 2015 General Assembly session. They said they will need more time to delve into issues such as redistricting, and they expect to have recommendations in those areas in time for the 2016 session.
McAuliffe said the reforms the commission sets in motion will help the state recover its reputation for clean government, something that has long made Virginia a desirable place to do business.
“I want to establish an enduring culture of integrity in which this state can prosper,” he said.
With a Democrat and Republican jointly at the helm, McAuliffe said the commission should transcend politics.
“There is no room for partisan bickering or gamesmanship here,” he said.
But the governor, whose sway on Capitol Square is limited by the GOP’s dominance in the House and its narrower control of the Senate, got a cool reception from Republican legislative leaders. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) issued a joint statement that praised Bolling and Boucher but also suggested that the governor was a latecomer to the issue. They noted that any changes will have to be approved by the legislature.
“Earlier this month, we pledged to take the additional steps necessary to restore the public’s trust after the events of the last 18 months,” the statement said. “Our pledge still stands.”
The Republican Party was more pointed, recounting McAuliffe’s long history as a record-breaking fundraiser for Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton before becoming the 72nd governor of Virginia.
“Trusting Terry McAuliffe to enact ethics reform isn’t just letting the fox guard the hen house, it’s letting the fox design and build the hen house for easier access,” Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Pat Mullins said in a written statement.
The McDonnells were convicted early this month of selling the prestige of the governor’s office to then-Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who sought the first couple’s help in promoting Star’s supplement, Anatabloc. More than a year before the trial began, news of his largesse had been reported. Legislators were familiar with the $15,000 in wedding catering, the Rolex watch, designer dresses and $120,000 in low-interest loans by the time they gathered for the General Assembly session in January. McDonnell and his wife were indicted just weeks into the session.
The scandal prompted the General Assembly to tighten what were some of the loosest gift laws in the nation. But critics — some legislators among them — said the reforms did not go far enough.
Before changes in state law were enacted this year, officeholders could accept gifts of unlimited value as long as they disclosed any worth more than $50. The package of ethics measures that the legislature passed and McAuliffe signed closed a loophole that allowed gifts to officeholders’ immediate relatives to go unreported.
The reforms also placed a $250 annual cap on the value of items that an official can receive in a single year from a lobbyist or person seeking to do business with the government. But “intangible gifts” such as travel and meals remain unlimited, as do campaign donations.
After McDonnell’s conviction, legislators on both sides of the aisle pledged to tighten gift rules further. McAuliffe’s commission is intended to do that and more — also tackling several thorny challenges that have eluded reform many times in the past: the state’s campaign finance laws, establishing a nonpartisan process for redistricting and taking the politics out of judicial appointments.
McAuliffe also said he wanted the commission to look at whether Virginia should change its constitution to allow governors to serve consecutive terms. In response to a reporter’s question, McAuliffe said he was not interested in serving a second term.
Other members of the commission are Viola Baskerville, a former delegate and Richmond City Council member; Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; John T. Casteen III, former president of the University of Virginia; Christopher Howard, president of Hampden-Sydney College; Susan A. Magill, former chief of staff to then-Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.); Courtney M. Malveaux, a business attorney at ThompsonMcMullan and former assistant attorney general; Joe T. May, a former delegate; and John Sherman Jr., former president of BB&T Scott & Stringfellow.