IN 2012, Quality Archery Designs, a Virginia-based e-commerce firm that sells hunting gizmos, presented then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) with a gift he described on disclosure forms as “tools,” valued at $309. The same year, the Virginia Wine Wholesalers Association gave state Sen. Stephen H. Martin (R-Chesterfield) $604 worth of — what else? — wine. Both gifts and a handful of similar ones, valued at more than $250 and given to elected officials, would be banned under a state ethics bill heading toward approval. The trouble is that about 750 other disclosed gifts would be unaffected. These range from Redskins tickets to meals, hotel stays and trips to Europe and Asia.
After a year of scandal and an indictment on corruption charges of the just-departed governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), Virginia lawmakers seem content to make do with utterly flaccid ethics legislation. The bill is so slack it would be disingenuous to refer to it as “reform,” as its advocates are fond of doing. In fact, it would do practically nothing to stanch the cascade of freebies to which Richmond’s high and mighty evidently feel entitled.
To understand the bill’s shortcomings, it is useful to know that the vast majority of perks and handouts lavished upon lawmakers take the form of dinners, galas, banquets, trips, sporting events and other “intangibles”; collectively, they amount to a movable year-round feast for the commonwealth’s elected officials. The measures that have cleared both the House of Delegates and the Senate would do little about all that.
Rather, they would impose a $250 limit on the value of “tangible” gifts — Mr. Cuccinelli’s archery gadget, Mr. Martin’s wine — that officials could accept. Even that limit is largely meaningless, since lawmakers and other officials could accept an infinite number of such gifts, or even checks, as long as no single one exceeded the $250 cap. What’s more, the gift ban in the Senate’s version of the bill applies only to registered lobbyists, who give very few gifts to lawmakers. Most gifts are given by the companies and associations that employ the lobbyists; they would be covered only in the House version of the bill.
The bill’s yawning loopholes don’t stop there. Say someone wanted to curry favor with a lawmaker by giving the lawmaker’s daughter a car. Given the $250 gift limit, that would be difficult — but only if the daughter lived at home. If she were away at college, neither the $250 limit nor the bill’s disclosure provisions would apply.
Nor would the bill do anything about a quirk in Virginia law that allows lawmakers to live off their campaign accounts, redirecting donations mainly intended for electoral purposes to groceries, gasoline and virtually anything under the sun.
The legislation substitutes window-dressing for muscular enforcement by establishing an “advisory” state ethics panel — with no staff or budget — instead of a commission with the resources and authority to investigate alleged violations. Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) proposed an amendment that would have empowered the ethics panel to approve all gifts of travel for officials if a trip’s value exceeded $1,000 and to ensure that such trips had a relationship to the public’s welfare. That was rejected on a voice vote.
Virginia has been embarrassed by the scandal surrounding Mr. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, who accepted gifts, trips and cash worth tens of thousands of dollars from a favor-seeking businessman. The legislation in Richmond slightly tightens disclosure rules but does nothing to rein in the common excesses. If lawmakers want to restore some semblance of dignity to a state once known for it, they must do more.
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