December 3, 2014
Two state senators from opposite sides of the political aisle have proposed a strict ban on gifts lawmakers and public officials could accept.
They also are calling for an ethics review panel that would have authority to fine offenders and reject expensive travel or entertainment not deemed related to public service.
Sens. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax City and Richard H. Stuart, R-Stafford, want to ban tangible gifts valued at more than $100 for any elected officials or employees of state government agencies and their immediate families.
Their plan would also require ethics council review of so-called “intangible” gifts such as travel or tickets that exceed $100, and give the council the authority to determine whether the state employee or elected official could accept the gift.
The council would also have the authority to fine officials who knowingly violate the law $250 for a first offense, and make a subsequent violation within four years a Class 1 misdemeanor.
“Our bill will put teeth into the Virginia Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, and will effectively ban all tangible gifts exceeding $100 in value,” Petersen said in a statement.
“It is long past time for Virginia to take effective steps to reform the current gift excess in Virginia and prove to the public that Virginia elected officials are taking concrete steps towards ethics reform.”
In a statement, Stuart said that he is adopting a “no gifts policy” other than legislative awards in order to underscore his commitment to reform.
“There is a culture of gift-giving in Richmond, and it is time to change that culture,” he said.
“These reforms will require legislators to reduce this practice and will restore confidence in Virginia government.”
The legislative proposal is just one of a number of ethics efforts expected to dominate debate at the 2015 General Assembly session, which begins Jan. 14.
After some adjustments were made earlier this year to Virginia’s notoriously lax ethics rules, there has been an increased urgency in the need to pass meaningful reform after the convictions in September of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on federal corruption charges.
A jury found the McDonnells guilty of attempting to sell the governor’s office in exchange for accepting some $177,000 in gifts, trips and loans from Henrico County businessman Jonnie Williams, who was eager to win state support for his company’s dietary supplement.
The former governor is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 6; Maureen McDonnell’s sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 20. The McDonnells face prison sentences and have said they will appeal the convictions.
After taking office, Gov. Terry McAuliffe instituted a similar $100 gift ban on himself and executive branch staff.
McAuliffe also convened his own commission to recommend ethics legislation.