Virginia lawmakers banish pricey gifts _ but not fundraisers

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Posted: Apr 06, 2016 11:49 AM
Virginia lawmakers banish pricey gifts _ but not fundraisers

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — In the Old Dominion, fancy gifts are out, but luxury fundraisers are still in.

An Associated Press analysis of campaign finance records shows Virginia's elected officials have hosted birthday blowouts, high-dollar hunting and fishing trips, and expensive golf tournaments in efforts to raise money. The fundraising occurred while lawmakers were putting new limits on gifts they could take from lobbyists and others after a scandal involving a former governor.

Many Virginia legislators said they need to throw attention-getting fundraisers to attract lobbyists and donors, who are inundated with constant requests.

"As a candidate, you owe them a little bit more than a table wafer and a piece of cheese," said state Sen. Bill Stanley, who has reported spending more than $11,000 on hunting and fishing fundraisers in the last two years.

Stanley said his fundraisers also help promote tourism in his Southside district by introducing Richmond lobbyists to attractions like Smith Mountain Lake.

Critics say the limits on gifts have done little to change the political culture: Instead of spoiling lawmakers with sports tickets and vacations, businesses are helping subsidize luxurious fundraisers. And campaign finance filings provide scant details, making it impossible to determine if those fundraisers make money, break even or even net a loss.

"They don't really believe there's a problem," Del. Marcus Simon said of some of his colleagues. "They'll comply with the letter of the law and very quickly look for a way around it."

Good government advocates said federal lawmakers have acted similarly since a series of scandals prompted them to outlaw gifts from lobbyists in 2007. Federal lawmakers are still allowed to throw lavish fundraisers through lobbyist-funded political action committees.

"It's a way for the lobbyist to gain access," said Larry Noble, general counsel to the Campaign Legal Center.

But unlike federal law and most other states, which have campaign contribution limits and prohibitions on lawmakers spending campaign funds for personal use, Virginia's campaign finance system is virtually unregulated. Lawmakers can accept donations of any size and spend it on anything they want, including themselves.

Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe made ethics reform an early priority and said he's broken from past gubernatorial practice of routinely accepting gifts like private jet rides, use of multimillion-dollar vacation homes or access to private suites at Washington Redskins games. In his first day in office, the Democratic governor signed an executive order limiting the value of gifts he, his family and staff could accept from lobbyists and others to $100.

But the governor's PAC faces no such restrictions and has spent tens of thousands of dollars on Washington steakhouses, private jets and plush resorts.

That includes a hunting fundraiser at an exclusive 12,000-acre resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The five-star Primland resort offers a variety of hunting packages, ranging from a few hundred dollars to $2,400-per-person pheasant shoots where "loaders and dog handlers dressed in proper shooting attire add European elegance and style," according to a resort brochure. The cost for the trip to his political action committee: $11,702. The governor and an aide declined to say who attended the November 2014 fundraiser.

McAuliffe has held a fundraiser at a Redskins game, and his PAC has reported spending $13,515 with the team. The state and the Redskins are currently in negotiations with the team about building a new stadium in Virginia. The team's owners are some of McAuliffe's biggest donors and have given his PAC a combined $225,000.

"The PAC ... spends the money to help raise money, and we give it out to candidates," McAuliffe said. "The PAC follows the rules, that's all I can tell you."

McAuliffe's moves to cap gifts came after a corruption scandal engulfed his predecessor. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of illegally accepting gifts like a Rolex watch and designer clothes in 2014. They remain out of prison while the U.S. Supreme Court reviews their case.

Virginia lawmakers have also put a $100 cap on gifts they can take from lobbyists and others. But the cap hasn't limited their fundraising activities, either. Few state lawmakers ever face serious challengers, but many rely heavily on the corporate interests that lobby them to build large campaign war chests.

Besides using large campaign funds to scare off potential challengers, lawmakers also raise money to give to other candidates and to subsidize their official duties.

Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke spent about $8,000 on a hotel, DJ and other items for a fundraiser in 2014 that doubled as a '70s-themed birthday party. Locke said the main purpose of the event was to raise money for her campaign — for which she faced no opposition — not to celebrate her 60th birthday.

"It wasn't designed to raise money for me personally," she said.

Lawmakers say they aren't necessarily taking part in the fundraiser festivities, either. GOP Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment said he doesn't play golf at his yearly tournament or hunt at his hunting fundraisers, though he did catch a fish on a fishing fundraiser.

"I don't shoot, I go around and thank them for being there," Norment said.

Norment spends heavily each year on fundraising, including more than $1,800 in 2014 to send invitations to his golf fundraiser, according to campaign finance records.

Furthermore, lawmakers don't have to close their campaign accounts after leaving office. After Sen. Henry Marsh retired from the General Assembly and was appointed to the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission board, he still put on his annual golf tournament and accepted campaign donations.

He returned the donations after being told to do so by McAuliffe's administration.

"It really wasn't to raise money but to keep the tradition of having my golf tournament," Marsh told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which first reported Marsh's golf tournament. "I wanted to keep it going."