Ethics reform bill passes Senate

Reforms pass senate 39-1 to limit gifts, increase oversight

The south portico of the Virginia State Capitol, in Richmond, VA, with the Senate, left, and House of Delegates (right) chambers. Photo taken Monday, April 23, 2007.

The Virginia Senate passed an ethics reform bill in a 39-1 vote Monday. The bill will limit donations and increase oversight of lobbyists and special interest groups.

The bill comes in the wake of a national scandal surrounding former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was indicted on federal corruption charges Jan. 21.

Under previous ethics standards, elected officials could receive unlimited gifts from interested parties. The value of any tangible gift given by a lobbyist will now be capped at $250. Lawmakers may still include intangible gives, however, which include meals, flights and entertainment events.

The bill also establishes the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, which will review disclosure forms filed by lobbyists and other donors. The council will provide opinions, but does not have investigative or enforcement powers.

Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, provided the lone dissenting vote, criticizing the amount of time spent drafting and considering gift reform. Several senators who approved the bill voiced displeasure with its shortcomings as well, including Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria.

“This solution falls short, especially for a major bill that’s been discussed for months,” Ebbin said in a press release.

According to a report published by advocacy organization ProgressVA, state elected officials received 756 gifts worth a total of $360,895 in 2012. Of those gifts, only 18 were tangible, and eight gifts were worth more than $250.

The bill limits gifts from registered, individual lobbyists, but does not mention gifts from companies.

“Under this definition, no gifts reported for calendar year 2012 would be banned, regardless of the amount,” according to the ProgressVA report.

All 2012 donations received by elected officials were from companies, not individuals, and all gifts given to McDonnell in 2012, including a $25,000 flight to Puerto Rico and a $19,000 suite at a Redskins game, would remain legal in Virginia under the new legislature.

Several senators proposed amendments to strengthen the reforms.

Ebbin pushed through an amendment which required the council be made up of former legislators. Amendments to further limit travel gifts did not pass, including one that would require legislators to receive approval from the council for travel gifts of $1,000 or more.

“There is absolutely no reason for members of the General Assembly to accept free trips on corporate jets to golf tournaments or safaris,” Ebbin said in a statement.

Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, passed an amendment denying legislators reimbursement for the cost of attending conferences unless the agenda is publicly disclosed. McEachin said he was dissatisfied with the bill, but approved it as a necessary, bipartisan first step.

“Recent events have profoundly shaken the public’s faith in our government, and we have to do something to regain their trust,” he said in a press release. “I’m hopeful that we can continue to work on ethics reform and not see this as any kind of final project.”

Published February 11, 2014 in FP test, News

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