RICHMOND — In Virginia, more than a year after a popular former governor was convicted of corruption, it’s legal for politicians to use campaign cash for personal use. Legislators are free to boost their $18,000 annual salaries by pocketing the $15,000 that the state gives them for office expenses. And public officials can still receive unlimited, undisclosed gifts if they call the giver a personal friend.
A state ethics panel that was meeting for the last time Monday took aim at those and other practices, which it said bred the kind of corruption that former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of in September 2014.
The Governor’s Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government, created by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), made a raft of recommendations at its final meeting. It also reiterated support for reforms that it proposed to the General Assembly to no avail last year.
The commission proposed that politicians no longer be allowed to use the campaign funds for personal expenses. Currently, they are prohibited only from doing so when a campaign or political action committee disbands — not while it is operating.
The rules are premised on the assumption that candidates standing for reelection would not dare spend campaign funds on themselves. But when McDonnell was in office, first lady Maureen McDonnell bought nearly $9,800 in clothing with money from her husband’s PAC and tapped into his campaign and inaugural funds to buy $7,600 in mostly unspecified items, according to records and a representative for the PAC.
The panel also recommended that the $15,000 that legislators are given for office expenses be reclassified as income, bringing their salaries to about $33,000. Members of the panel said it would be a mistake to say that they are recommending raises for legislators, because the office allocation is already taxed and used as income.
“It’s not that they would make more money, but we would actually be transparent about the money they were making,” said former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling (R), who co-chaired the commission with former congressman Rick Boucher (D). “Let’s call it what it is: It’s income.”
The office allowance was created more than a decade ago as an under-the-table raise for legislators, who feared the image of giving themselves raises, Bolling said. People who operate district offices often use campaign money to fund them.
The panel proposed providing an additional $15,000 each to legislators for their offices but requiring that the spending be documented and that any unspent funds be returned to the state. Currently, the $15,000 comes with no strings attached.
It is not clear whether McAuliffe or legislators will embrace the proposals, which would need approval through the General Assembly.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor was still considering the recommendations.
“The speaker is not interested and does not feel that the House as a whole is interested, either,” Matthew Moran, spokesman for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), said when asked about converting the $15,000 office allotment to salary.
Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) introduced bills this year and last year to ban the personal use of campaign funds, only to see them die in subcommittee votes. He was hopeful that the measure might have more success now.
“If there is no limit on how you can spend funds in your campaign account, contributors may as well be depositing money directly into your checking account,” he said.
Virginia had some of the nation’s most lax ethics rules before the McDonnell scandal prompted a series of reforms. Once free to accept personal gifts of unlimited value from people with business before the government, legislators voted to limit what individual lobbyists can give to $100 a year.
But loopholes remain, including exemptions for people considered personal friends. The McDonnells, who are appealing their convictions, claimed that they did not have to disclose the $177,000 in luxury gifts and loans that a Richmond businessman gave them because he was a friend.
The commission recommended requiring that public officials disclose gifts from friends if they are valued at more than $1,000 and prohibiting those worth more than $5,000 unless an ethics advisory panel grants a waiver.