HARRISONBURG — The House of Delegates applied what’s likely just a first coat of protection for itself Tuesday when members almost unanimously approved an expansive ethics overhaul.
“We’re protecting ourselves from ourselves,” said Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway. “The responsibility stops here, as an elected official. It’s up to me to police myself.”
The House voted 98-1 in favor of the bill carried by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock. The Senate passed a nearly identical version Monday.
The General Assembly has eyed ethics reform after former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family received more than $160,000 in gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams. In exchange, according to a federal indictment against the McDonnells, Williams received favorable reviews of his products, a charge the couple denies.
“We certainly wanted to address as many of the problems that arose in the past year as possible, and we think we’ve done that, for the most part,” Gilbert said. “It’s not perfect, but it is a very positive step forward for reforming ethics.”
The bill prohibits tangible gifts worth more than $250 from lobbyists to state employees and legislators. Unlimited gifts under $250 could still come legislators’ way, and expensive trips and meals from special interests that lawmakers frequently are treated to are still allowed.
“We have a lot of members who go on a lot of educational trips,” Gilbert said. “I am not one of them, but it would be hard for them to be able to do that for under $250.”
On meals, Wilt added: “The thing [people] need to realize is it’s not a party thing. They’re inviting Republicans and Democrats. That side is bipartisan. The folks who take us out to a meal, they don’t discriminate.”
Gifts to immediate family members are made subject to disclosure in the bill, unlike current law in which there is no requirement that they be disclosed. Gilbert’s measure also sets up the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, a 14-member group of delegates, senators and appointees from the governor, attorney general and Virginia Association of Counties and Virginia Municipal League.
The council will not have investigative powers but will review and post online the disclosure forms filed by lobbyists and provide formal opinions and informal advice, education and training.
“We think that showing the light of day on that information will help citizens and voters make better decisions,” Gilbert said of the searchable online database.
The bill also requires the filing of disclosure forms twice a year, instead of once, as current law states.
Del. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, cast the lone dissenting vote.
The Senate passed a similar ethics bill 39-1, placing the same limit on gifts at $250, requiring disclosure of gifts to family and establishing an ethics advisory council.
Supporters acknowledged that it was hardly a “perfect product.” Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, voted against it, calling it a solution crafted in a “knee-jerk fashion.”
“We are reacting to the Fourth Estate,” he said on the Senate floor, referencing the media. “We are reacting to an immediate situation that with just a little bit of clarity could have been cleared up.”
Gilbert said discussions were held among House members to make his bill stricter on disclosure rules, but it seemed as if “traps” were being set when hypothetical situations were presented.
“We’ve got to be careful that we don’t create a ‘gotcha’ situation where someone actually gets something or receives something and it somehow falls into one of these [banned] categories … and they were innocent of any ill intent,” Wilt said.
Lawmakers seem certain that the General Assembly will review what worked and what needs improvement in coming years.
“It’ll be a work in progress,” Wilt said.
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