All Eyes on Governor McAuliffe to See Whether He Signs Ethics Bill. Critics Say the New Bill Is “Weak Reform” At Best
On Friday February 27, 2015, in a legislative scurry just hours before the end of the legislative session, the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate agreed on and passed a compromise bill to reform governmental ethics in Virginia. Prior to the compromise bill’s passage each chamber had passed competing versions of ethics reform in 2015. (See blog dated February 25, 2015, “Virginia Is For Lovers, But Is It For Ethics Reform”). The competing bills then had been sent to conference committee where lawmakers reached the last minute deal. The negotiated agreement has now been sent to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe who can either: (1) sign the bill into law, (2) veto the bill, or (3) amend the bill with changes and send it back to the Virginia General Assembly. However, since the Assembly has adjourned, the Governor has 30 days to act on the bill. If Governor McAuliffe does not act on the bill within 30 days of adjournment, the bill becomes law without his signature. See Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia Article V, Section 6.
Critics have already lined up calling the newly proposed ethics reform measures disappointing and even worse. The Washington Post Editorial Board spared no feelings calling the proposed law “so anemic you almost wonder why they bothered.” Professor Frank Shafroth the Director of the George Mason University Center for State and Local Government Leadership told NPR affiliate WAMU he would rate the bill “a C-minus.” All eyes are now on Governor Terry McAuliffe to see whether he will sign the bill into law. For his part, Governor McAuliffe told The News Leader he is taking a wait and see approach. He told reporters on February 27th, “I’m glad we got something done. . . . We’re going to have to look at the bill very carefully because, as you know, a lot of it was put together today.”
The 49-page ethics reform bill passed by the Virginia General Assembly seeks to implement the following changes to the current ethics law:
Places a $100 limit on gifts, including meals and trips for public officials;
Removes the distinction between tangible and intangible gifts. (Under the current law, intangible gifts have no limit.)
Establishes an Ethics Council which shall have authority to give lawmakers permission to accept free trips beyond the gift limit if they “bear a reasonable relationship between the purpose of the travel and the official duties of the requester.” The Ethics Council does not have subpoena power, the power to initiate investigations, or the power to impose fines;
Establishes reporting requirements to the Ethics Council for public officials for gifts;
Exempts travel for official business, including national legislative conferences from disclosure regardless of who pays;
Exempts the following from the definition of “gifts” to public officials: (1) anything worth less than $50, (2) awards and unused tickets, (3) gifts from family members or personal friends, (4) meals provided while a public officials is performing his or her “official duties,” and (5) meals given while a public official is a featured speaker or presenter; and
Exempts meals valued over $100 to public officials or family members if the event is “widely attended” meaning 25 or more people, though these meals must be disclosed.
One of the main points of criticism of the proposed law is the lack of investigative powers for the proposed Ethics Council. The Washington Post called the bill’s enforcement mechanisms “toothless.” However, legislators pushed back telling WAMU the bill is an improvement over current law. House of Delegates Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Chalottesville) called the 2015 ethics reform package, “another positive step toward restoring the public’s trust in their elected officials.” But even that claim has been controversial.
Only last year, the General Assembly passed, and the Governor signed into law an ethics reform package, which limits gifts annually to $250. (See blog dated October 2, 2014 titled “Virginia Gets Kinda Serious on Ethics Reform”). The 2015 bill limits gifts to $100. But critics are quick to point out that the new $100 limit is a per gift limit, while the previous $250 limit was an aggregate annual gift limit. Thus, under the newly proposed law, public officials technically could get numerous $99 gifts, extending the annual aggregate amount well over the previous $250 limit and still be in compliance with the newly proposed ethics rules. According to the liberal advocacy group Progress Virginia, the proposed new law still would have allowed approximately 80% of gifts given to Virginia lawmakers in 2014. Delegate Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) told The News Leader, “the lack of [an] aggregate cap is a step backwards from the law we passed last year.” The Washington Post was also critical of the fact that the reform package does not address the rules governing campaign funds and the use of such funds for personal expenses, such as meals, groceries, and gas.
Ethics reforms were sought in the wake of Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s conviction on 11 counts of public corruption related offenses in 2014. McDonnell was sentenced to 24 months in prison and his wife, former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell, was sentenced to 366 days in prison for her role in the case. Both await their appeal decisions in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia. At the time of former Governor McDonnell’s conviction, The New York Times called Virginia’s ethics laws some of the loosest ethics rules in the nation. It remains to be seen whether current Governor Terry McAuliffe will accept an imperfect bill as incremental progress and continue to push for change. Or whether McAuliffe will refuse to accept mediocrity and demand that the Virginia General Assembly start all over by vetoing the bill.