Virginia ethics commission calls for tighter gift restrictions, independent review body

Proposals to be discussed by General Assembly in 2015


A state commission tasked with investigating Virginia’s ethics laws released a report Monday calling for tighter restrictions on gifts to public officials and limits on board and commission members from voting on matters affecting their interests. The commission also announced the creation of an independent ethics review commission to oversee and penalize violations of these rules.

“These interim recommendations constitute a major step forward in the effort to ensure that in Virginia no interest comes before the public interest,” Commission Co-Chair Rick Boucher said in a press release. 

The new commission, formally known as the Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government, described the creation of an independent ethics review commission as “at the core of the commission’s interim recommendations.”

The review commission would have the authority to “implement random audits, to initiate investigations of potential violations of ethics laws and policies, rather than merely react to external complaints, and to issue appropriate sanctions and waivers when necessary and appropriate,” according to the report. The proposed commission would also provide confidential advice to public officials who wish to avoid mistakenly violating ethics guidelines.

The commission also recommended extending Virginia’s $250 cap on tangible donations to include intangible gifts.

“At least one watchdog group has noted that the vast majority of gifts reported by legislators are intangibles, including meals, tickets and trips,” the report stated.

In addition, the commission recommended extending the law to cap donations from any source. Existing laws only limit gifts received from lobbyists, a lobbyist’s client or a party to a state contract.

The commission also called for strengthening laws prohibiting members of state boards and commissions from influencing decisions that involve their personal interests by prohibiting officials from “voting, authorizing grants, awarding contracts, issuing opinions or otherwise influencing a decision that directly benefits the interests of themselves, an immediate family member or business associate.”

According to the report, “Co-chairman Bolling several times expressed his surprise that the conduct described in the recommendation was not already prohibited.”

“These first recommendations deal with the best or most commonly understood matters that the commission is studying,” said commission member and former University President John Casteen. “Many of these recommendations are more or less universal best practice in government and in business. No one who knows state government will have been surprised by them. They make simple sense.”

The commission made these recommendations in its interim report to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, ahead of the Virginia General Assembly’s 2015 session. The commission was created after the Virginia’s previous governor, Bob McDonnell, was convicted of corruption.

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