Ethics panel recommends changes on gift, disclosure, conflict rules

November 14, 2014 /  BY BillBolling.com

Richmond Times-Dispatch
By: Jim Nolan

The ethics commission appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Friday advanced a series of recommendations that would significantly tighten Virginia’s notoriously lax laws covering gifts, accountability and conflicts for lawmakers and public officials.

The commission recommended imposing a flat $250 limit on any type of gift received by public officials; restricting board and commission members from voting on matters directly affecting their interests; and empowering a new bipartisan Ethics Review Commission that would have the authority to approve waivers to the gift limit, investigate complaints and impose civil penalties for violations.

The group also recommended requiring electronic filing of disclosure forms and the disclosure of private loans exceeding $5,000 to public officials. It is considering recommending a constitutional amendment to replace legislative control of congressional redistricting with a bipartisan panel.

“It’s a good set of recommendations,” said former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, the co-chairman, with former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-9th, of the Governor’s Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government.

“I think it constitutes real, meaningful, substantive ethics reform.”

The recommendations, to be formally presented to the governor Dec. 1, followed a meeting last month by the 10-member group of academics, public officials, businessmen and former lawmakers, and a public hearing in Charlottesville last week.

McAuliffe formed the commission just weeks after a federal jury convicted former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on corruption charges for using the governor’s office to assist the CEO of a dietary supplement company in exchange for more than $175,000 in luxury gifts, trips and loans.

The former governor’s sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 6; Maureen McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 20. Both plan to appeal their convictions, which sent a shock wave through the corridors of power in Richmond.

In response, lawmakers have spent the weeks leading up to the 2015 General Assembly session considering changes to state laws, which were tightened earlier this year. Those changes largely failed to curtail the lavish spending on trips, meals and entertainment on the tabs of the capital’s extensive business and lobbying community.

Mindful of the McDonnell scandal, McAuliffe set the tone upon entering office in January, signing an executive order that places a $100 limit per donor on gifts that his executive branch employees can accept.

The recommendations of his commission could form the basis of legislation offered by the governor in the upcoming legislative session. Specifically, they include:

Gifts and loans

The commission proposes removing the distinction in the current law between “tangible” and “intangible” gifts and replacing it with a $250 annual limit on any gifts received by legislators, executive-level government officials, board and commission members, and their spouses and dependents.

Public officials would not have to disclose any gift less than $100, an increase from the current $50 disclosure requirement. But they would have to disclose any loan greater than $5,000 from a “non-commercial lender.”

The new rule would allow for the Ethics Review Commission to provide waivers for travel paid for by a third party, provided it was determined to be “directly related” to an official’s public duties.

“There aren’t going to be any safaris to Africa,” Bolling said.

It also would offer exemptions for attendance at events that have 20 or more people.

Ethics Review Commission

The proposal calls for a commission that would have authority to approve waivers, initiate and investigate ethics complaints, and issue civil penalties for violations.

The commission also would maintain an accessible online database of forms filed by public officials and lobbyists.

The proposed commission would consist of appointees from the majority and minority leaders of the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate, with the stipulation that at least one representative from each chamber be a retired lawmaker.

A governor would have three appointees consisting of a retired local government official, a retired county official and a retired judge.

Conflicts of interest

While lawmakers are prohibited from voting on issues in which they have a personal interest, current law places no such restriction on members serving on the many boards and commissions of the state and local governments.

The commission proposes a similar prohibition on such participants that includes voting, authorizing grants, issuing opinions or “otherwise influencing a decision that directly benefits” themselves, a family member or a business interest.

Disclosure

The commission recommends that its proposed Ethics Review Commission develop an online, searchable database of the disclosure forms filed by public officials.

It also would require that any travel, gifts or other waivers issued by the commission be posted on the website within 48 hours.

The commission concluded that the current one-year moratorium against a public official lobbying after leaving their job was sufficient. But it did not address what has become common practice in state government, where lawmakers leave their part-time legislative offices to accept higher-paying, pension-fattening appointments as judges or high-ranking state officials.

Several lawmakers have already proposed legislation imposing a two-year ban on making the leap, and to prohibit such positions being given to family members of sitting lawmakers.

“I think there was a recognition that sometimes the legislator is the most qualified” for a position, said Bolling, adding that such appointments are generally so publicly well-known that they are already subject to disclosure and criticism if they present a problem.

All the recommendations offered by the governor’s commission would have to clear the General Assembly to become law. That effectively puts the lawmakers in the business of reining in and modifying their own conduct.

“I know they are going to want to put their own stamp on it,” Bolling said. “The legislature has to decide whether or not it’s prepared to tackle this issue in a really meaningful, substantive way. If they are, then I think these recommendations will serve as a meaningful, substantial blueprint.”

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