Officials pledge tighter ethics rules in Virginia

AP News
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Posted: Sep 05, 2014 5:25 PM
Officials pledge tighter ethics rules in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The days of no-limit Virginia politics could be coming to an end.

The Old Dominion has long eschewed caps on money in politics that are routine in many other states. Campaign contribution limits? Don't have 'em. Want to fly a state House delegate to the Masters golf tournament? Treat some state senators to a Redskins game in a luxury box? There's no state law stopping you.

The ethics ethos in Virginia has long been focused on disclosure, meaning that politicians were free to take what they wanted — for their campaigns or even for themselves — as long as they reported it to the public. Few questioned the approach when Virginia enjoyed a reputation for having a clean-run government.

But the epic fall from grace by former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was convicted Thursday of 11 corruption counts, has the potential to spark a major overhaul of the way state politicians behave.

"This is a dynamite charge blowing up Virginia political culture," said Robert D. Holsworth, a Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor who sat through most of the five-week federal trial.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of doing favors for wealthy vitamin executive Jonnie Williams in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans they admitted taking. During the trial, Bob McDonnell spent five days on the stand carefully detailing how he didn't substantively break Virginia law.

While captivating a state audience with its soap opera-like details of marital discord, the McDonnell trial also highlighted the yawning gulf between what a federal jury thinks is acceptable behavior for a public official versus what Virginia law allows. And it's a gap that caused a growing chorus of calls from public officials both for new limits on what they can take, as well as for greater disclosure requirements.

"We need ethics reform here in the commonwealth," said Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who signed an executive order capping gifts at $100 for himself, his family and his staff shortly after taking office. "You go into office, you have to serve the public good. Nobody should be giving you anything of value."

McAuliffe's chief political foe, Republican House Speaker William J. Howell, echoed similar sentiments in a statement.

"It is clear that the public's trust and confidence has been shaken and that's unacceptable. I am fully committed to taking the necessary steps to restore that trust and confidence," Howell said.

Both promised to push for new reforms during next year's legislative session, which starts in January.

Even before the McDonnells were indicted at the beginning of the year, lawmakers acknowledged the state's disclosure rules had some obvious loopholes and took steps toward closing them. The McDonnells contended they didn't have to disclose the $15,000 Williams paid for their daughter's wedding because the money wasn't a direct gift to them. And on McDonnell's yearly financial disclosure form, he was required to list only Williams' occupation, not his actual identity, when disclosing a $50,000 loan from the former Star Scientific CEO.

Earlier this year during the legislative session, lawmakers from both parties agreed on a set of reforms that put a $250 cap on some types of gifts they can receive and tightened the disclosure requirements to require the identity of a public official's individual creditors.

But critics said the new legislation does not go far enough and more reforms are needed.

"Lawmakers cannot ignore what will be tremendous pressure to toughen ethics laws," said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. "What was seen as inadequate last session will be seen as woefully inadequate come January."

The details of what might be changed in the state's ethics laws are still unknown, but one of the thorniest issues during the most recent legislative session involved gifts to lawmakers such as meals, trips and entertainment. Lawmakers can still accept those items in unlimited amounts.

Heavy hitters in Virginia politics often spend heavily on those types of gifts. Dominion Resources, the state's largest utility and one of its most powerful political entities, reported spending more than $42,000 entertaining lawmakers in its most recent yearly disclosure form. That included spending more than $7,000 to send two Republican delegates to attend the Masters golf tournament this spring in Georgia and more than $22,000 on costs associated with taking several lawmakers to Redskins' games. The lawmakers and Dominion were required to disclose the gifts.

Republican state Sen. Steve Martin said that those types of gifts are often just ways for companies to get to spend more time with lawmakers, and that he doesn't know any legislator who would be unduly influenced by such things. But, he said, after McDonnell's conviction he's open to new restrictions.

"It just doesn't look good at all," Martin said.