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.
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.”
The results of Election Day 2014 hold some important lessons for Virginia Republicans. The question is: Will the GOP learn them?
First, the bad news.
In the commonwealth’s only statewide campaign, Democrat Mark Warner was re-elected to the U.S. Senate by a narrow margin. That was his sixth straight statewide victory. In addition, Democrats have now won nine of the past 10 top-of-the-ticket statewide campaigns in Virginia.
That’s not good news for Virginia Republicans. Clearly, these facts point to the fact that Virginia, once a reliable Republican state, has turned blue in statewide campaigns.
However, even though Republicans lost the U.S. Senate campaign, there was also some good news. The race was much closer than political pundits had predicted.
Republican Ed Gillespie ran a very strong campaign and did much better than anyone expected. He came within a few thousand votes of defeating Warner, who has long been regarded as the most popular political figure in Virginia.
Gillespie is a conservative Republican, but he ran a mainstream campaign and was able to attract the support of many moderate and independent voters. That’s what you have to do to win statewide campaigns in Virginia.
Gillespie ran a campaign modeled after that of former Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009. McDonnell, another conservative Republican, also ran a mainstream campaign and was able to reach out to a broad cross-section of Virginia voters.
McDonnell is the only Republican to win a top-of-the-ticket statewide campaign in Virginia in the past 10 years.
What enabled McDonnell to win in 2009 and Gillespie to do much better than the pundits expected in 2014? Two things.
First, they focused on the big issues facing Virginia and our country. They talked about jobs and the economy and other mainstream issues like education, health care and transportation. These are the issues the people of Virginia care about.
Second, they worked hard to avoid rigid ideologies, confrontational politics and divisive social issues. A focus on those types of issues, which drive away more moderate and independent voters, has proven to be problematic for many Republican candidates in Virginia.
Contrast the success that McDonnell and Gillespie enjoyed in 2009 and 2014 with the disastrous outcome Virginia Republicans experienced in 2013, when they nominated a ticket that was very ideologically driven and had a record of focusing on the most divisive issues of the day. In a year that should have favored Republicans, we lost all three statewide offices to Democrats.
The lesson in these election outcomes is clear. Virginia Republicans can win when they nominate mainstream conservative candidates that keep their focus on the issues Virginia voters care most about.
But to earn the trust of the more moderate and independent voters whose support is needed to win statewide political campaigns in our state, Republicans must steer clear of rigid ideologies, confrontational politics and divisive social issues.
And we cannot nominate candidates who have records that make it impossible for them to present themselves to voters as mainstream political leaders.
A close analysis of exit polls from recent statewide campaigns also makes this point.
Republicans have lost most statewide campaigns in the past decade because Democrats have done a better job of gaining the support of key demographic groups like women, younger voters and what I have come to call the changing face of Virginia — rapidly growing communities of Hispanic, Asian and Indian voters. To win statewide campaigns, Republicans must do a better job of attracting support from these key demographic groups.
These voters will support mainstream conservative candidates who keep their focus on the big issues facing our state, but they will not support candidates who they feel are too ideologically driven and too focused on the most controversial and divisive issues of the day.
McDonnell proved this in 2009 by winning an overwhelming victory as governor and, even though he lost in 2014, Gillespie proved the same point by running a much more competitive campaign than anyone expected.
Gillespie may have lost, but his campaign shows Republicans the way forward.
Bill Bolling is chairman of the Virginia Mainstream Project, which is dedicated to promoting a more mainstream approach to politics and governing in Virginia. He is the former lieutenant governor of Virginia.
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: https://governor.virginia.gov/integrity-commission.
Rick Boucher, a Democrat, represented Virginia’s 9th Congressional District in the House from 1983 to 2011. Bill Bolling, a Republican, was lieutenant governor of Virginia from 2006 to 2014 and a state senator from 1996 to 2005.
For decades, Virginia enjoyed a reputation as one of the best-managed states in the nation. It’s easy to see why: We balance our budgets responsibly, we keep taxes low and regulation in check, and we foster a business atmosphere competitive with any part of the country.
That reputation for good management extended to the conduct of our public officials. Where corruption and scandal unfortunately occurred in other states, Virginia enjoyed a culture of exceptional and often selfless public service.
That reputation for honesty and integrity in government is a significant part of why so many businesses and workers choose to make Virginia their home.
Today, we risk losing our reputation for good governance. We risk allowing loose laws and ethical lapses to derail our long and successful effort to make Virginia a place where businesses and citizens can be certain that their elected officials will act in their constituents’ best interests.
As Virginians with 57 years of public service between us, we have seen the opportunities for growth that arise when a state enjoys a reputation for excellent management. Without public trust, Virginia is at grave risk of losing out on the next round of investment and that next aspiring entrepreneur.
That’s why we gladly accepted Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s request to chair the Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government. Our commission will conduct a comprehensive review of Virginia’s approach to ethics, campaign finance, gifts, conflicts of interest, lobbying and a host of other issues that ultimately determine the scope of the public’s trust in state government. We are joined by eight public figures who have served Virginia with distinction.
The commission will make recommendations for legislation and policies that will create some of the highest ethical and governance standards in the nation.
Virginia is fortunate that its political leaders in the General Assembly have shown the desire necessary to tackle these problems. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) wrote last month that they will “re-examine every aspect of our ethics, transparency and disclosure laws. We will build on the steps taken during this year’s session and seek to enact reforms that are stronger and more stringent.”
We could not agree more with this comprehensive approach. Our commonwealth was founded on a principle of honest government that puts the public good ahead of all other considerations. We look forward to doing our part in putting together a plan that holds true to these shared goals.
When many in federal government show little interest in working together, we in Virginia have the chance to show again that we do things differently. Our faith in bipartisanship and our belief in good government aren’t mere talking points. They are two of the great underpinnings of our commonwealth’s economic success.
In Virginia, common sense has always won out over cynicism and the petty politics of short-term gain. It is time for this generation of Virginians to inscribe this belief into our laws.
RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe established a commission Thursday with a broad mandate to erase the stain of the McDonnell scandal with “an enduring culture of integrity.”
The 10-person Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government has a charge as expansive as its name: to study and recommend changes in the laws and procedures governing ethics, campaign finance, redistricting, judicial appointments and gubernatorial term limits.
McAuliffe (D) unveiled the commission just weeks after former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of corruption related to their acceptance of $177,000 in luxury gifts, vacations and sweetheart loans from a businessman seeking their help to promote a dietary supplement.
“This bipartisan commission will our be our first step toward restoring Virginians’ trust in their government,” McAuliffe said during a news conference at the Capitol. “It is my hope that the leaders who sit on it will recommend a comprehensive approach to ensuring that no power or influence weighs heavier with our commonwealth’s elected officials than the will of the people who hired them to serve.”
The commission will be co-chaired by Bill Bolling, a former Republican lieutenant governor, and Rick Boucher, a Democrat who represented southwestern Virginia in Congress for nearly three decades.
Bolling and Boucher said they plan to recommend a package of ethics reforms by late December, ahead of the 2015 General Assembly session. They said they will need more time to delve into issues such as redistricting, and they expect to have recommendations in those areas in time for the 2016 session.
McAuliffe said the reforms the commission sets in motion will help the state recover its reputation for clean government, something that has long made Virginia a desirable place to do business.
“I want to establish an enduring culture of integrity in which this state can prosper,” he said.
With a Democrat and Republican jointly at the helm, McAuliffe said the commission should transcend politics.
“There is no room for partisan bickering or gamesmanship here,” he said.
But the governor, whose sway on Capitol Square is limited by the GOP’s dominance in the House and its narrower control of the Senate, got a cool reception from Republican legislative leaders. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) issued a joint statement that praised Bolling and Boucher but also suggested that the governor was a latecomer to the issue. They noted that any changes will have to be approved by the legislature.
“Earlier this month, we pledged to take the additional steps necessary to restore the public’s trust after the events of the last 18 months,” the statement said. “Our pledge still stands.”
The Republican Party was more pointed, recounting McAuliffe’s long history as a record-breaking fundraiser for Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton before becoming the 72nd governor of Virginia.
“Trusting Terry McAuliffe to enact ethics reform isn’t just letting the fox guard the hen house, it’s letting the fox design and build the hen house for easier access,” Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Pat Mullins said in a written statement.
The McDonnells were convicted early this month of selling the prestige of the governor’s office to then-Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who sought the first couple’s help in promoting Star’s supplement, Anatabloc. More than a year before the trial began, news of his largesse had been reported. Legislators were familiar with the $15,000 in wedding catering, the Rolex watch, designer dresses and $120,000 in low-interest loans by the time they gathered for the General Assembly session in January. McDonnell and his wife were indicted just weeks into the session.
The scandal prompted the General Assembly to tighten what were some of the loosest gift laws in the nation. But critics — some legislators among them — said the reforms did not go far enough.
Before changes in state law were enacted this year, officeholders could accept gifts of unlimited value as long as they disclosed any worth more than $50. The package of ethics measures that the legislature passed and McAuliffe signed closed a loophole that allowed gifts to officeholders’ immediate relatives to go unreported.
The reforms also placed a $250 annual cap on the value of items that an official can receive in a single year from a lobbyist or person seeking to do business with the government. But “intangible gifts” such as travel and meals remain unlimited, as do campaign donations.
After McDonnell’s conviction, legislators on both sides of the aisle pledged to tighten gift rules further. McAuliffe’s commission is intended to do that and more — also tackling several thorny challenges that have eluded reform many times in the past: the state’s campaign finance laws, establishing a nonpartisan process for redistricting and taking the politics out of judicial appointments.
McAuliffe also said he wanted the commission to look at whether Virginia should change its constitution to allow governors to serve consecutive terms. In response to a reporter’s question, McAuliffe said he was not interested in serving a second term.
Other members of the commission are Viola Baskerville, a former delegate and Richmond City Council member; Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; John T. Casteen III, former president of the University of Virginia; Christopher Howard, president of Hampden-Sydney College; Susan A. Magill, former chief of staff to then-Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.); Courtney M. Malveaux, a business attorney at ThompsonMcMullan and former assistant attorney general; Joe T. May, a former delegate; and John Sherman Jr., former president of BB&T Scott & Stringfellow.