After a standoff threatened to derail a deal ending lax gift restrictions and unregulated trips ranging from Napa to Paris, Virginia lawmakers passed new ethics legislation Friday, with the General Assembly adjourning early for the first time in 15 years.
The new restrictions lower caps on all gifts from $250 to $100, and end exemptions for certain intangible gifts - such as meals and trips. Elected officials would now have to report items over $50 and have an assortment of free travel plans pre-approved.
If Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signs the legislation, Virginia’s Conflicts of Interest Advisory Council will review future travel itineraries, and require trips to have reasonable connections with lawmakers’ official duties.
The council will have five days to approve or reject travel, with some political trips exempt from pre-clearance requirements.
Travel for political events must still be reported on campaign finance filings, and travel necessary for state duties will also be exempt.
But the Capitol delved into deadlock during the session’s final hours, with several senators unconvinced that new ethics guidelines were needed.
The impasse followed earlier debate in the Senate this month, when a handful of Republicans blamed the media for forcing them to pass new anti-corruption laws.
“The press is not going to be satisfied until it’s zero,” said Sen. John Watkins, (R-Powhatan), referring to proposed gift caps. “My admonition would be to the press. Figure it out. Because I don’t think you have yet.”
Senators railing against ethics reform, courtesy Senate Clerk’s Office & Information Systems and Columbia Journalism Review
The drama ended Friday, after House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) paid a forceful visit to Republican Senate colleagues. The bill ultimately passed unanimously in both chambers.
Disclosure forms will also be required to be available online, posted in a searchable database within six weeks of filing dates.
Before the high-profile corruption case involving former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and First Lady Maureen McDonnell, top Virginia lawmakers reported trips ranging from wine tasting in Napa to the Le Bourget Air Show in Paris.
Gift amounts have now dropped precipitously, with the Virginia Public Access Project reporting gifts received by Gov. McDonnell in his first year averaging $661, compared to $99 received by Gov. McAuliffe.
Despite the General Assembly's passage of ethics reform, lawmakers and advocacy groups said significant shortfalls still exist.
“I am disappointed that essentially, the [Advisory Council] still has no real investigative and enforcement capabilities,” said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) in a statement Friday.
“There remains no cap on the cumulative value of gifts, and the gift ban has potentially problematic exemptions that render it much weaker than it should be.”
The current $250 limit adopted in 2014 only applies to lobbyists, and caps the total value of gifts a single lobbyist may give to a lawmaker at $250.
The new $100 cap means anyone can give a state official an unlimited number of gifts, as long as each gift has a value of $100 or lower.
Anna Scholl, executive director of liberal advocacy group ProgressVA, said although positive reforms have been made, Friday’s actions are not strong enough.
“Legislators refused to establish an independent and impartial ethics commission with the power to randomly audit ethics filings, investigate signed complaints, and refer findings for prosecution,” Scholl said.
“The approved bill also carves out a loophole for privately-sponsored travel for legislators and elected officials to private conferences.”
House Republican leaders said new ethics regulations will increase transparency in government, and touted lawmakers reaching a deal in time to adjourn early for the first session since 2000.
“Completing our work early saves taxpayer dollars and illustrates that Richmond can rise above the partisan gridlock so easily visible in Washington,” said the House Republican Leadership in a statement.
“While Congress is at a standstill, under Republican leadership the House has worked diligently and efficiently to finish ahead of schedule.”