Virginia House Leaders Reach Bipartisan Deal On Ethics Rules Following Governor's Investigation

01/06/2014 11:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014
  • Jim Nolan and Olympia Meola Richmond Times-Dispatch

Republican and Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates have reached a tentative agreement on a wide-ranging package of legislative reforms to the state's ethics, transparency and disclosure laws.

The reforms, a legislative outgrowth of the ongoing gift investigations of Gov. Bob McDonnell, include:

--Prohibiting elected officials from soliciting gifts and placing a $250 limit on the amount of gifts they can receive from lobbyists and individuals with business interests before the state.

--Requiring the reporting of gifts to elected officials' spouses and immediate family members, while clarifying definitions on gifts that can be received from personal friends.

--Requiring elected officials to file financial disclosure forms twice a year, on a schedule that is synchronized with the filing requirements of lobbyists and lawmakers.

--Establishing a "State Ethics Advisory Commission" of legislator and citizen appointees to oversee Virginia's disclosure system, and put all disclosure forms online.

"While we recognize the difficulty in legislating ethical behavior among elected officials, we believe it is important to set clear standards of conduct that the public can understand, and that we should sanction those who violate the public trust," Republican Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and Democratic Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, write in an opinion column in Tuesday's Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"The citizens of Virginia demand nothing less."

Ethics reform has been at the forefront of legislative priorities in the weeks leading up to the 2014 General Assembly, which convenes Wednesday for a 60 day session.

With public attention firmly fixed on ethics among politicians, lawmakers from both parties -- and incoming Gov. Terry McAuliffe -- have embraced the idea of changing the state's historically lax and ambiguous rules on gift giving, receiving and disclosure.

McAuliffe says that no matter the legislative action, he will sign an executive order to bar him, his family and members of his executive staff from accepting gifts of $100 or more.

McDonnell faces federal indictment over the circumstances surrounding more than $160,000 in gifts and loans to himself, his wife and his children received from wealthy businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. He also faces state charges over requirements to report the gifts on his financial disclosure forms.

The governor has maintained that he has complied with all the laws regarding reporting and receiving of gifts, and has said that Williams received no special treatment in exchange for the largesse of loans, trips and merchandise he lavished on the governor and his family.

Virginia's current rules are based on disclosure rather than a gift limit. Officeholders must disclose any gift worth more than $50, but the law does not place the same requirement on gifts to immediate family members.

Lobbyists, meanwhile, disclose in July and lawmakers report in January. It can be hard to align the information from lobbyists and the disclosures that elected officials make in part because of the differing cycles and also because they are submitted to different offices.

State officials file statements of economic interest, and lobbyists file disclosures, to the secretary of the commonwealth. Members of the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate file with the clerks of each chamber.

Approval of the reforms must pass both the House and the Virginia Senate before reaching McAuliffe's desk. Senators from both parties have also been at work on an ethics reform package. Cox and Toscano say they expect the final package of reforms to "be refined throughout the legislative process. ___

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