RICHMOND — A state legislator who has seemed to embody the push and pull of ethics reform in anything-goes Virginia will represent the Senate on a new ethics council meant to usher in a new era.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) was appointed Tuesday to the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.
Norment has called for and sponsored legislation to limit gifts to legislators in the wake of a gifts scandal involving former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen. But Norment has also accepted free hunting trips from Virginia businesses and lashed out at the media over the focus on ethics.
Norment’s appointment to the 15-member council, made by the Senate and confirmed by the House Tuesday, can be viewed as ironic and fitting all at once, said Quentin Kidd, a professor of public policy at Christopher Newport University.
Kidd said: “I think his natural position is to push back and to say, ‘The people here have high integrity, and the process is mostly honest and fair.’ . . . The other perspective is to say, ‘He’s one of the long-standing members of the Senate. He’s spoken out a lot on issues of ethics reform. He’s probably got as proper a place on this commission as anybody.’ ”
Before the McDonnell scandal, Virginia was home to some of the nation’s loosest gift laws, with public officials free to take personal gifts of unlimited value so long as they disclosed any worth more than $50. Gifts to immediate family did not have to be disclosed.
As majority leader, Norment played a prominent role as the legislature moved to tighten standards with an initial round of reforms last year, which capped gifts from lobbyists at $250 but left “intangible” gifts including vacations and meals unlimited. He pledged with House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) to lead a second round following the McDonnells’ conviction in September — including limits on trips such as the hunting excursions that Norment has accepted over the years from Dominion Resources and others.
As the bill has made its way through the General Assembly, Norment has complained bitterly that the media were driving the push for tighter standards.
“Frankly, in the media, you eviscerate us, you write about all this stuff,” he said this month when bills emerged from House and Senate panels. “You think I’m going to sell 24 years in public office for 250 bucks. That insults me.”
In an interview Tuesday, Norment repeated that assertion, saying that the media will not be satisfied until state law limits campaign contributions. The current round of ethics reform caps personal gifts at $100, but campaign contributions remain unlimited.
“I’ve been pretty candid that I thought that folks other than the legislators are driving this,” he said.
Norment said he supports stricter standards but is wary of how complex the bill has become as legislators have tried to find ways to carve out exceptions for gifts from relatives and personal friends.
“I do want it to work,” he said. “I just want people to clearly understand what their responsibilities are. . . . There is a legislator who had an aide for multiple years, a personal friendship and, actually, when she was married, gave her away. And he was told he had to report the cost of the wedding reception because she was a lobbyist. I mean, that’s absurd.”