By Benjamin May
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – The results are in. All of the General Assembly’s work on ethics reform in the 2015 session came to an end Friday with the passage of a 98-page bill that lawmakers hailed as a significant accomplish, but some critics said it still needs work.
The issue of ethics has been a joke for some legislators, but House Speaker William J. Howell said on the first day of the session that it is the responsibility of the General Assembly to gain Virginia’s trust back.
The week before the session started, former Gov. Bob McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption – and toward the end of the session, his wife Maureen was given a prison term of one year and a day. The McDonnells are appealing their 2014 felony corruption convictions. Their case sparked a debate on what is appropriate conduct at the Capitol and in the offices of public servants across the state.
On the final day of the session, both the House and Senate unanimously passed a bill – SB 1424 – that incorporated ideas from several pieces of legislation. Among other things, the bill puts a $100 caps on gifts that public officials can receive. (The current cap is $250.)
The bill, which also addresses officials’ travel and the Ethics Advisory Council’s makeup, now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe to be signed into law.
After adjournment, lawmakers cited ethics reform as one of the session’s highlights.
Howell and other members of the House Republican leadership issued a statement saying their chamber had “led the effort to enact stronger ethics laws that will improve transparency in government.” The Senate Republican leadership put SB 1424 on its list of achievements. And McAuliffe said the bill was a move in the right direction.
“This session brought much-needed reforms to Virginia’s ethics laws. The newly passed $100 gift cap will reduce conflicts of interest and increase public confidence in state government,” the governor said in a statement.
“That is a significant step forward, but it is my hope that we can continue to work together on key additional reforms, including an ethics commission with meaningful investigative authority, a ban on fundraising in special sessions and meaningful nonpartisan redistricting reform.
“Virginians have a right to demand that their leaders are putting them ahead of all other financial or personal political considerations, and this session was an important step in that direction.”
Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA, an advocacy group for low-income Virginians and open government, expressed sentiments similar to the governor’s.
“The ethics reform legislation the General Assembly passed … is a step forward, and it includes important reforms, such [as] a $100 gift cap, but it still falls far short of the mark,” Scholl said.
“The approved bill also carves out a loophole for privately sponsored travel for legislators and elected officials to private conferences such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.”
The bill contains gift and travel exceptions for lawmakers in a variety of circumstances. Among gift exceptions are unsolicited awards or unused tickets to events. Another exception is food and beverages provided to public officials at some events.
Another focus of the bill is gifts received outside of office. Lawmakers will not be penalized for gifts from family members or close friends. This was never a public concern, but lawmakers agreed that clarification was necessary.
The first pages of the bill focus on the governor’s office. Contributions to the governor or the governor’s campaign committee are prohibited or must be returned if the contributing entity is seeking funds from the Commonwealth’s Development Opportunity Fund, which provides financial incentives for businesses to move to or expand operations in Virginia.
The bill also addresses the powers and makeup of the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council. It will consist of nine members.
- Two senators
- Two delegates
- Three retired judges of a court of record
- One nominee from the Virginia Municipal League
- A ninth member chosen by the governor
Funding for the advisory council will come from a $100 lobbyist registration fee.
Disclosure forms will be filed electronically and made available to the public. The bill provides civil penalties of $50-250 and a Class 5 felony for knowingly filing a false disclosure statement.
Advocates of ethics in public office are asking for more. They want the council to have subpoena powers and the ability to randomly audit public officials. Questions loom about how disclosures will be investigated.
“A toothless ethics council that still allows legislators to police themselves is insufficient for restoring public confidence in government,” Scholl said.