By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
RICHMOND, Va. — The author of four ethics-reform bills says a House proposal opens the way to free vacations for lawmakers.
“Travel is at the heart of what we receive, and this is like Swiss cheese,” state Sen. Chap Petersen said of the House ethics package.
The House of Delegates plan imposes a $250 limit on gifts legislators can receive from lobbyists and individuals with business before the state. The gift cap does not include travel.
The wording of the bill leaves open the prospect of lawmakers taking paid-for vacations.
“Lobbyists or anybody else are allowed to take lawmakers on vacation. For an unlimited value,” Petersen’s office charged.
In an interview with Watchdog.org on the opening day of the General Assembly, Petersen urged the House to tighten its reform initiative.
“It doesn’t go far enough in changing the culture,” he said, noting that the delegates’ plan keeps the General Assembly exempt from Freedom of Information Act provisions.
“We operate in an ethics-free environment,” said the Fairfax Democrat, who wants to end the FOIA waiver.
There’s even disagreement over who classifies as a “friend.”
The House reforms require the reporting of gifts to elected officials’ spouses and immediate family members while clarifying definitions on gifts that officials can accept from “friends” – without defining the term.
Petersen, whose legislation avoids use of the word, went on to criticize the House version for failing to rein in legal bills of public officials who find themselves in ethical fixes.
Pointing to the “giftgate” scandal embroiling Gov. Bob McDonnell, Petersen said private attorneys are being employed at public expense.
“You have million-dollar legal bills and taxpayers get stuck with the tab while a private citizen (gets) a $1,500-public defender.”
“We need to have agreements with local or city attorneys or public defenders who could step in to represent public officials,” said Petersen, a lawyer.
Matthew Moran, spokesman for House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Falmouth, said more ethics measures are forthcoming.
“The speaker believes the bipartisan, bicameral ethics agreement unveiled (Tuesday) will strengthen accountability, promote greater transparency and preserve trust in state government and those who serve the citizens of the commonwealth.
“A number of other legislators have filed legislation and those bills will be reviewed throughout the legislative process,” Moran said in a statement. He did not address Petersen’s critique.
Petersen and the House both propose creation of a state Ethics Commission.
Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward
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