RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s government integrity commission agreed Friday to preliminary recommendations that would limit the value of gifts lawmakers could receive but would also walk back disclosure rules.
The commission proposed a ban on gifts exceeding $250, with the exception of trips cleared in advance by an independent board with the authority to investigate malfeasance and impose fines.
And although lawmakers currently have to disclose gifts worth more than $50, under the commission’s proposal, that threshold would increase to $100, which commission members said would accommodate inflation.
The 10-member Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government was formed by McAuliffe (D) in September after his predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), was convicted of federal corruption charges for trading the prestige of his office for $177,000 in gifts and loans.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly have also pledged to take steps to restore public trust since the McDonnell trial.
Former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling, a Republican who ran with McDonnell, and former congressman Rick Boucher, a Democrat who represented southwestern Virginia for nearly three decades, co-chair the commission.
“I think that Virginians anticipate further ethical improvements in state law, and broadly, I think Virginians are looking toward the governor and the General Assembly to make those changes,” Boucher said. “We have, I think, a very important role to play.”
Bolling said the draft recommendations are a good start.
“I’m not saying that they’re going to solve all the issues we have, but I think they’re going to solve a lot of those issues and certainly take us from where we are to where we need to be in a very substantial way,” he said.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said through his spokesman Matt Moran that he would “reserve judgment until the commission makes all of its official recommendations.”
The commission must deliver its full recommendations to McAuliffe by Dec. 1.
The commission’s work marks the second time in the past year officials have tried to rein in Virginia’s relatively loose ethics rules since the McDonnell scandal broke.
Initially, public officials were allowed to accept gifts of unlimited value, and gifts to immediate relatives were not required to be reported.
This year, the General Assembly approved legislation, which the governor signed, to put a $250 cap on the value of gifts public officials may accept from lobbyists or someone seeking a state contract.
That action left officials free to accept unlimited “intangible gifts,” such as vacations and meals.
The commission’s proposal would eliminate the distinction between tangible and intangible gifts with an across-the-board cap of $250.
In addition, it would require officials to disclose gifts worth more than $100, instead of the current $50 threshold.
After some initial reluctance, Bolling said the change makes sense to keep up with inflation.
“My personal view was that we probably should not increase that from 50 to 100 because I don’t want to send the wrong message to people that there’s less disclosure as opposed to more,” he said.
In addition, the commission proposed creating a seven-member Ethics Review Commission that would have the power to preapprove trips exceeding the $250 limit.
It would also have the authority to issue advisory opinions, investigate claims of wrongdoing, impose fines and refer its findings to law enforcement agencies.
“We have never really had before in Virginia an ethics commission that had the ability to take action in connection with alleged violations of ethical conduct,” Bolling said.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who did not attend the meeting, said lawmakers have long favored limiting trips but wrestled with how to distinguish between junkets and legitimate trips on state business.
He also noted that McDonnell broke federal but not state law, and he said one solution would be to change state law to mirror the federal code.
The watchdog group Common Cause praised the creation of a commission with broad authority but noted several loopholes, including an exception to the $250 cap for attendance at events with 20 or more people.
The current language appears to cover “attendance by members of the General Assembly at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the World Series, the Super Bowl and a host of other events,” Common Cause said in a statement.
After hearing the group’s concern, Boucher and Bolling said they plan to review the provision.
The commission also would prohibit all members of boards and agencies from influencing decisions that benefit themselves, immediate family members or business associates. This includes such actions as “voting, authorizing grants, awarding contracts [and] issuing opinions.”
The commission also wants to keep in place the twice-a-year filing requirement for elected officials but loosen it to once a year for members of low-level boards and commissions.