RICHMOND — The Virginia House and Senate on Tuesday reluctantly passed different government ethics bills that stop short of the changes Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said are needed to restore the state’s reputation.
After the September conviction of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), McAuliffe and leaders of both chambers called for a further tightening of laws governing what gifts lawmakers may accept and the establishment of a council to police the practice.
The House, Senate and governor have agreed on a $100 annual limit on all gifts, including meals and trips, as well as the creation of a bipartisan body to advise lawmakers and issue waivers for travel that exceeds the cap.
Only the governor, however, supported giving the council subpoena and audit power, and the Senate bill would authorize random inspections that could result in possible civil penalties. The House bill has neither provision.
Over the next few weeks, officials will hammer out compromise legislation to send to McAuliffe.
The Senate bill passed 35 to 1, but only after lawmakers spent more than an hour railing against what they called an unnecessary and dangerous intrusion on their difficult and unremunerative legislative jobs.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who wrote the bill, called the ethics debate a “political conundrum” and the bill a “bastardized piece of legislation.”
If lawmakers do nothing, he said, “we will be lambasted, we will be ridiculed, we will appear on every opinion page of every newspaper in Virginia.”
Noting that all lawmakers face reelection this year, he added, “I can see the mail piece right now. They will probably have bars superimposed on our faces.”
The House version passed, 93 to 6, with a less overtly hostile response from delegates and about 15 minutes of debate.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the bill’s primary sponsor, said he doubted that an ethics commission would be independent or nonpartisan. He said enforcing ethics laws should be up to prosecutors.
“It will be used only to settle political scores. But the grand jury through the criminal justice system is used very effectively every day,” he said.
The bills represent a second attempt to reform ethics rules after the McDonnell public corruption scandal sullied a state that had prided itself on good government.
After McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were indicted in January 2014, legislators capped “tangible” gifts at $250. After the McDonnells were convicted in September, Norment and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) called for a second round of ethics reform. “Simply put, where action is needed, we will act,” they wrote in an op-ed that appeared in the Richmond-Times Dispatch.
But lawmakers’ enthusiasm for the process appears to have waned with the start of the legislative session last month.
Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) said the public is not clamoring for ethics reform. By overhauling the ethics laws two years in a row, she said, “we have created somehow the impression that we are unethical.”
The House, Senate and governor all want the ethics council to exempt from the gift ban travel related to lawmakers’ official duties, but they differ widely on how much power the body should have.
Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who voted against the House bill, said that without an ethics board authorized to issue subpoenas and perform audits, wrongdoing will only be exposed by whistleblowers or by accident.
“There’s no accountability in our system,” Surovell said. “There’s hardly any way to get caught in our system.”
The Senate bill exempts from the cap gifts to lawmakers that come from close relatives or personal friends, but those friends cannot be lobbyists or clients of lobbyists. For other state and local officials, close friends could not include anyone seeking business with an agency of which the person is an employee or officer.
The language is a direct response to the McDonnell case. The governor was convicted of trading the prestige of his office for lavish gifts from Jonnie R. Williams, who was seeking government assistance for his dietary-supplement company.
The House and Senate bills prohibit gifts from individuals and businesses seeking grants from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund, money McAuliffe and past governors have relied on to lure businesses to the state. McAuliffe vetoed a version of this prohibition last year.
The governor proposed expanding the ban on political fundraising during the regularly scheduled General Assembly session to include the special session — an idea that went nowhere in the legislature.
In response to all the rulemaking, Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Powhatan) — who has announced that he will not seek reelection, citing the increasingly partisan nature of the Senate — said: “I couldn’t be any surer that I made the right decision three months ago to retire.”
He added: “The press is not going to be satisfied” until gifts are banned completely. “And you know what, maybe that’s the way we should be going.” He ended with a call for an increase in the part-time senators’ $18,000 annual salary.