Republicans and Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly have reached an agreement over ethics reform, a major issue for lawmakers as they head into a new legislative session.
House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, scheduled a news conference this morning to announce the compromise.
“There’s been a bipartisan group of House members that have been discussing ethics reform, and this is the agreement that has been reached,” said Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
Two people with knowledge of the deal said it includes a $250 limit on gifts from individuals with some exceptions, disclosure requirements for immediate family members, biannual rather than annual disclosure requirements for lawmakers and lobbyists, ethics training for new lawmakers (along with refresher courses for veterans), a clarification of the definition of “friends” under disclosure requirements, and the creation of an ethics commission that would have advisory power.
The agreement of proposed legislation comes as outgoing Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell leaves office in the midst of a criminal investigation related to lavish gifts from a campaign donor, and as members of both parties are putting forward their own ethics proposals.
Some lawmakers were surprised.
“I was shocked to hear there was an agreement, because I don’t think a lot of people in our caucus were aware of it,” said Del. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.
According to someone familiar with the conversation, Republican senators were informed of the deal on a conference call Monday afternoon. Some plan to continue with their own plans.
“I’ve got three different ethics bills,” said Sen. Thomas A. Garrett, R-Louisa. “I’m freelancing.”
Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, has proposed a string of bills designed to head off another gift-related scandal.
“Virginians deserve better than the current culture in Richmond,” he said in a statement Monday. “The era of Rolexes, lake-house vacations, and $150,000 loans must end,” he added, a reference to some of the presents McDonnell and his family accepted from Star Scientific chief executive Johnnie Williams.
His proposals would cap gifts at $2,000 a year, limit an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act for General Assembly members to legislation-related records and establish an ethics commission. He would also require the attorney general to contract with county and city attorneys rather than private firms when a conflict of interest arises, citing the six-figure legal bill taxpayers are footing for the private firms representing McDonnell and his staff.
In a letter to lawmakers, outgoing Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) joined the call for reform, urging them to pass a series of changes he first proposed last year.
“It is clear that there are a number of significant loopholes in our current ethics laws that need to be closed, and this is the time to do so,” he wrote.
His prescription includes a ban on gifts over $250, the reporting of gifts to family members, disclosure of all investments, a ban on legislators representing clients in front of state agencies and an ethics commission.
Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Powhatan) has put forward a bill that would require gifts to immediate family members of the governor and attorney general be reported. Sen. Kenneth C. Alexander (D-Norfolk) and Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) would require gifts over $100 to immediate family members of lawmakers and officials be reported if they come from someone doing business with the state. Marshall is also suggesting a joint subcommittee on ethics that would produce a series of recommendations by the beginning of the 2015 legislative session.
Sen. Ralph K. Smith (R-Roanoke) wants to strengthen disclosure requirements for lobbyists and require lawmakers and officials to disclose economic interests over $5,000, rather than the $10,000 threshold in current law.
Virginia currently enjoys some of the most lax ethics laws in the nation. It’s one of just 10 states that allow officeholders to take personal gifts of unlimited value, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The only requirement is that gifts over $50 be reported. Unlike most states, Virginia does not require that gifts to immediate family members be reported at all. Anyone with business before the state can make a donation to a politician, as long as the gift is not intended to influence official action.
A 2009 bribery scandal that put a former high-ranking member of the House of Delegates in federal prison prompted similar calls for ethics reform. But in the end, only minor changes to conflict-of-interest rules actually passed.
Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has also called for a bipartisan ethics commission and a ban on gifts over $50. Whether the legislature enacts that limit, he has said, he will impose it on himself. Two people with knowledge of the deal said McAuliffe is aware of it.
Outgoing Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli last year urged McDonnell to convene a special session of the legislature to deal with ethics reform. McDonnell declined to do so, but last fall promise that before stepping down he would offer up his own ethics reforms. A spokesman said that McDonnell has chosen to make his recommendations to legislators privately, because he will be out of the office by the time any changes are made.