VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS, BUT IS IT FOR ETHICS REFORM?

February 25, 2015

Competing Bills Pass the Virginia State House & Senate, But Will They Be Able To Agree & Send Compromise Bill To Governor Before Lawmaking Session Ends?

 

Growing up in North Carolina directly south of Virginia, my family often vacationed in the “Old Dominion” state.  We would spend hot summer days enjoying the rollercoasters and water rides at theme parks in Richmond and Williamsburg and taking in a little American colonial history at Jamestown.  As we drove toward the northern state line, I would always giggle when I saw the sign, “Welcome to Virginia” because it always had the iconic logo, “Virginia is For Lovers.”  Funny thing about logos, they work and the image gets stuck in your head by association many years later.  The Virginia General Assembly, it seems, is taking up another cause, ethics reform, and trying to avoid the association of its state with public corruption.  The question arises, will Virginia be known  only for “lovers” or will “ethics reform” be its new found love?

 

The Commonwealth’s General Assembly has been tinkering with broader ethics reform in the wake of a federal judge sentencing former Governor Bob McDonnell and former first lady Maureen McDonnell to prison for public corruption related offenses.  (The New York Times reports Bob McDonnell sentenced to 24 months in prison.  The Washington Post reports Maureen McDonnell sentenced to 366 days in prison.)  In March of 2014, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law what was widely viewed by commentators as tepid ethics reform.  (See my blog dated October 2, 2014 titled “Virginia Gets ‘Kinda’ Serious On Ethics Reform”).   The 2014 ethics reform law, which took effect July 1, 2014 did the following:

  • Placed a $250 annual limit on tangible gifts to public officials from any lobbyist or entity who hires lobbyists, or entities doing business with or seeking to do business with state entities;

  • Required disclosure of gifts to public officials from immediate family members;

  • Required disclosure of stock owned by public officials worth more than $5,000; but,

  • Failed to place an annual limit on intangible gifts to public officials such as meals, transportation, and trips.

Governor McAuliffe signed the 2014 ethics reform-law; although he was disappointed with the scope of the new law and had hoped lawmakers would reach farther and ban gifts above $100 annually. 

On February 10, 2015, the Virginia House of Delegates passed HB2070, a bill introduced by Delegate C. Todd Gilbert (R-VA) from the 15th district which includes the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains.  HB2070 passed the House of Delegates with large bi-partisan margins, garnering 96 yes votes and 6 no votes.  HB2070 seeks to enact the following ethics reforms:

  • Removes the distinction between tangible and intangible gifts;

  • Limits annual gifts to $100 to public officials from certain persons who lobby or do business with the state;

  • Prohibits immediate family members of public officials from soliciting gifts more than $100 annually from certain persons who lobby or do business with the state;

  • Excludes widely attended events such as parties and banquets from the $100 annual limit;

  • Requires public officials to disclose all gifts or entertainment exceeding $50;

  • Requires prior approval by the Virginia Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council for work travel, lodging, meals, or entertainment above $100;

  • Prohibits gifts to the Governor or his/her PAC greater than $50 from those seeking to do business with the Development Opportunity Fund;

  • Requires electronic filing of disclosure forms and punishes an intentional violation as a class 5 felony; and

  • Establishes civil penalties of $500 or up to two times the amount of the gift, whichever is greater.

Thus far, the Virginia Senate has not taken up HB2070 for a vote.  Virginia’s Constitution requires identical bills to pass the House of Delegates and Senate before they can be sent to the governor to sign or veto.  (See Article V, Section 6(a)). 

On February 10, 2015, the state Senate passed SB1424, also a bill to reform ethics in Virginia.  SB1424 was introduced by Senator Thomas K. Norment, Jr.  (R-VA) of Williamsburg.   In an overwhelming showing of bi-partisan support, SB1424 passed the Senate with 35 yes votes and 1 no vote.  This legislation seeks to enact the following reforms:

  • Authorizes the Virginia Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council to (1) receive and review all ethics disclosure forms from public officials, (2) conduct annual inspections, (3) issue advisory opinions, (4) grant waivers for travel and gifts, and (5) refer violations for civil enforcement and penalties;

  • Reduces size of the Virginia Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council from 15 members to 9, requires a bi-partisan balance of membership, and allows for random audits of public officials;

  • Prohibits gifts from a single source to public officials valued at more than $100 annually;

  • Exempts from the $100 annual gift limit business associates and close family members;

  • Exempts from the $100 annual gift limit widely attended events or gifts for which the public official reimbursed the donor;

  • Prohibits gifts to the Governor or his/her PAC greater than $50 for those seeking to do business with the Development Opportunity Fund; and

  • Establishes civil penalties of $500 or up to two times the amount of the gift, whichever is greater.

Thus far, the House of Delegates also has not taken up SB1424.  If neither chamber takes a vote on the other chamber’s bill, lawmakers will have to reach a compromise through a jointly appointed Conference Committee.  Lawmakers only have until the end of February 2015 to forge a compromise, because the current legislative session ends at midnight on February 27, 2015.  Otherwise, they will have to start all over in a new legislative session, which will not begin until April 15, 2015.

 

WAMU radio a NPR affiliate reported that neither bill included granting subpoena power for the Virginia Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, a reform that is being pushed by Governor McAuliffe.  Lawmakers however told WAMU that they did not believe Governor McAuliffe would veto a compromise bill, if reached in conference committee, merely because it did not contain the subpoena power language.  If lawmakers are successful in conference committee, perhaps the welcome to Virginia sign will in the future read, “Virginia is for Lovers and Ethics Reform, too!”.

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Terry Eaton -
Attorney, Professor & Speaker

Terry Eaton is the Founder and Principal at the Eaton Law Firm, PLLC.  Mr. Eaton focuses his practice defending

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202-780-4270

VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS, BUT IS IT FOR ETHICS REFORM?

February 25, 2015

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