McAuliffe’s ethics panel discusses possible reforms

October 27, 2014 /  BY

Richmond Times-Dispatch
By: Jim Nolan

A 10-member gubernatorial committee on Monday began the daunting and delicate task of formulating proposals aimed at reforming Virginia’s lax gift and ethics rules for public officials.

The task before the Governor’s Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government is daunting because officials are under pressure to reform following the corruption convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. The couple were charged with selling the governor’s office in exchange for more than $177,000 in gifts, loans and trips provided by former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr.

“It is, quite frankly, unfortunate that we need to be here,” said former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who served with McDonnell and is co-chairman of the commission with former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-9th. Bolling said everyone knows there are loopholes in the current rules, noting: “We’ve seen in the past year that reasonable judgment isn’t always exercised.”

“It’s clear we have some weaknesses,” Bolling said. “We have lost a portion of the public’s trust in Virginia, and we need to regain that trust.”

The panel’s task is delicate because in order for the recommendations of the commission to take hold, they will have to win the approval of the lawmakers they seek to regulate.

“Our recommendations are only going to be successful if the General Assembly passes them,” observed Boucher.

The General Assembly passed some reforms this year, among them placing a $250 cap on so-called tangible gifts to lawmakers and requiring disclosure of gifts to legislators’ spouses and immediate family members. Lawmakers also created an ethics advisory commission, though its scope and ability to police behavior was considered so anemic that McAuliffe refused to fund it.

Enter the new commission, which McAuliffe has charged with completing work on a wide range of issues, including policy recommendations for: legislation governing gifts and loans, conflicts of interest, disclosure, oversight and enforcement, rules restricting jobs of former public servants and redistricting.

While the group will not formalize its recommendations until Dec. 1, consensus emerged in several areas after discussion during the three-hour meeting at the state Capitol.

Commission members appeared to agree that a cap also needs to be placed on so-called intangible gifts received by lawmakers — the tickets, trips and dinners taken by lawmakers that currently have no limit. Such gifts represent the lion’s share of what they receive from lobbyists and business interests.

But panel members said any such rule should not restrict lawmakers from doing their jobs, such as attending conferences or meetings with constituent groups that might be central to representing their districts.

“We don’t want to make things so onerous so that people don’t want to serve,” said commission member John Sherman Jr., former CEO of BB&T Scott & Stringfellow Inc.

“We have to be very, very careful,” said former Del. Joe T. May, a Republican from Loudoun County. He said travel associated with government work could be an exception, while acknowledging that “it’s pretty hard to justify as being reasonable” tickets for a weekend at the Super Bowl, or “antelope hunting in Aspen, Colo.”

The panel also found agreement on the need for an independent ethics commission that has, as one member stated, the “teeth” to oversee, investigate, and advise and sanction official conduct. Members discussed the possibility of having two commissions — one that would oversee legislative affairs and another to monitor the executive branch.

McAuliffe has mandated a $100 limit on gifts to members of his administration.

There was also support for eliminating the conflict of having members of government boards or commissions making decisions that could directly impact their own financial interests or those of family members.

Discussed but unresolved was what to do with the last charge given to the commission — making recommendations on redistricting, in which legislators redraw the boundaries of the state’s legislative and congressional districts following a U.S. census.

The topic was thrown into the mix after a recent federal court decision. A three-judge panel declared the 3rd Congressional District unconstitutional because lawmakers packed too many additional African-Americans into what already was a majority-minority district. As a result, the judges said state legislators must redraw the state’s congressional map.

The General Assembly has until April 1 to redraw the district lines. The commission said it might hold a separate meeting on the issue so it can be fully debated, but it agreed that redistricting should reflect “fairness, equity and transparency.”

The commission will meet again Nov. 14, when it expects to act on recommendations to be forwarded to the governor. In the meantime, members will hold a public hearing in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia School of Law on Nov. 6 at 6 p.m.

Members of the public wishing to see the work of the commission or file comments can do so on the commission’s website:

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