RICHMOND — Senate Republicans were ready to sink an ethics reform bill they thought was flawed until House Speaker William J. Howell threatened to shame them publicly if they passed nothing, participants in Friday’s last-minute negotiations said.
On the legislature’s front burner since a former governor and first lady were indicted in a gifts scandal in January 2014, ethics reform nearly fell apart in the final hours of the 2015 General Assembly session, according to four people with direct knowledge of the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private deliberations.
Some Republican senators said they wanted more time to work on a bill they considered overly complicated. But they gave in after House leaders, determined to end the session a day early as a symbol of efficient GOP governance, threatened to adopt a resolution just for their chamber, adjourn and leave the Senate hanging as the bad guy.
The Assembly passed the bill and did, in fact, adjourn late Friday after a frenzied final day in which bills to improve safety at home-based day-care operations and the handling of campus sexual assaults were passed.
The final ethics bill for the first time puts a $100 limit on gifts, including meals and trips. But it also adds a long list of exceptions. It creates an ethics council but gives it no power to investigate or issue fines and penalties.
While supporters say the bill will help restore public confidence in government, critics on both sides of the aisle say it fell prey to last-minute sausage-
making that left them concerned and confused about what passed.
“It’s an incredibly arrogant way to make policy,” said Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax). “The public really deserves better than that.”
The 49-page bill, meant to build on the first round of reform undertaken last year, appears to lower the cap on gifts lawmakers may accept from $250 to $100. But the current $250 cap is an annual, aggregate limit that an individual lobbyist may bestow on a legislator. The $100 is a per-gift cap, so a lobbyist could give a public official an unlimited succession of $99 gifts without running afoul of the law.
“In a lot of ways, the lack of aggregate cap is a step backwards from the law we passed last year,” Surovell said.
Another exception would allow a lobbyist to pay for a legislator to fly to the Capitol from a far-flung corner of Virginia without disclosure. As long as the legislator was traveling to conduct official business, transportation expenses would not be considered a gift and subject to the $100 limit or need to be disclosed.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) will have to decide whether to sign, amend or veto the bill.
“I’m glad we got something done,” he told reporters shortly after the passage Friday night. “I think the $100 limit is a big deal . . . so I’m happy. . . . We’re going to have to look at the bill very carefully because, as you know, a lot of it was put together today.”
Former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling (R), who co-chaired a task force created by McAuliffe to make ethics recommendations, said the governor should amend it to address serious weaknesses.
“Oftentimes these bills sound much better on the surface than when you peel back the onion and look at the details,” he said. “There are still a lot of loopholes and exceptions in this bill that people need to be mindful of.”
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) defended the bill, saying any effort to legislate ethical behavior will ultimately be flawed.
“They need to quit calling this thing an ethics bill, because you can’t legislate ethics,” he said. “You can legislate reporting guidelines, but you can’t legislate ethics, and that’s where the confusion comes. This law does not certify us as 100 percent pure people.”
He continued: “People said there’s nothing you can do to please the press short of zeroing out all campaign contributions and making it illegal to look at or talk to a lobbyist. That’s what the conversations were all about [Friday] night. . . . I think it’s true.”
The House and Senate passed different versions of ethics bills Feb. 10, but lawmakers didn’t begin negotiating a compromise in earnest until more than two weeks later, on Thursday night, a day before leaders were hoping to adjourn for the year.
For about two hours, lawmakers gathered in the office of Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) — who, like Saslaw, has been critical of the push for ethics reform — and went through the bill line by line. They met again from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Friday, but the deal wasn’t final until after 8 p.m.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said differences in House and Senate philosophies affected negotiations “substantially.”
“We were very focused and aggressive in our approach, at least much more so than they were,” Gilbert said. “Their issues were more big picture: Are we deterring people from serving in public office? Are we creating traps that people are going to unwittingly fall into?”
With deliberations dragging on in the final hours of the 2015 General Assembly session, Howell (R-Stafford) paid a visit to Republican Senate leaders, the four sources said. Behind closed doors, he told them that his chamber was prepared to pass its own ethics resolution, cutting the Senate out altogether, and then declare the session over — a procedural move that would also force the Senate to go home, with no chance to pass a resolution of its own.
Howell’s spokesman, Matt Moran, declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations.
With the latest plan for reforming ethics in Virginia still hot off the photocopier, senators had less than half an hour to page through and decide whether to take it or leave it.
“I don’t know that anybody walked away feeling like that bill was what it should be,” said one Republican senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to be frank.
Virginia had some of the loosest ethics laws in the nation until a gifts scandal involving former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, pushed lawmakers to action.
After the couple’s indictment in early 2014, the legislature made an initial round of reforms. After the McDonnells were convicted in September of selling the prestige of their office for $177,000 in sweetheart loans, luxury gifts and trips, lawmakers pledged a further round of reforms.
Last year, lawmakers capped gifts from lobbyists or anyone seeking to do business with the state at $250 a year. However, the gift cap was applied only to lobbyists, lobbying principals or anyone who has or is seeking a contract with the state. In addition, lawmakers last year put no limit on “intangible gifts,” such as meals and trips.
The new bill has a long list of things that are not considered gifts and, therefore, do not have to be disclosed at all, including anything worth less than $50, awards and unused tickets, and gifts from family members. All meals provided to officials while they’re performing “official duties related to [their] public service” and received while an official is a “featured speaker, presenter or lecturer” do not have to be disclosed.
The non-gift list includes travel “to facilitate attendance by a legislator at a regular or special session of the General Assembly, a meeting of a legislative committee or commission, or a national conference where attendance is approved by the House or Senate Committee on Rules.”
Officials and their family members can accept meals worth more than $100 at “widely attended events” of more than 25 people who share a common interest, though they must be disclosed.
“That’s the Super Bowl, that’s the Masters golf tournament. That’s a pretty big exception that I really think should have been tightened up,” Bolling said. “There’s a whole lot of opportunities under this bill for people to receive gifts much larger than $100.”
The bill establishes an ethics council, but it would be far weaker than one with subpoena power, as the governor proposed. “It has absolutely no meaningful powers,” Bolling said.
It will be up to the council to give special permission for lawmakers to accept a free trip “that bears a reasonable relationship between the purpose of the travel and the official duties of the requester.”
The exceptions didn’t stop some lawmakers from taking credit for being tough on ethics. House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) called the bill “another positive step toward restoring the public’s trust in their elected officials.”
He continued: “While you cannot legislate ethical behavior, we can establish certain bright line standards for what is permissible and what is not. That is what we have done with this bill.”