Earlier this month I wrote a letter to Governor McAuliffe urging him to rewrite the Ethics legislation that the General Assembly approved in the waning hours of our abbreviated regular session on February 27. I was joined by five of my House of Delegates colleagues. The six of us were the only members of the House who voted no when the bill was originally before us.
Although the Conference Committee’s report, which combined the House and Senate versions of the bill, was approved unanimously, we wanted the Governor to understand that the vote should not be taken as a sign that there was universal agreement that the legislation was adequate. Many of us were in the queue to speak to the report and ask questions of the conferees when Republican lawmakers abruptly ended debate. The Speaker further refused to acknowledge any debate whatsoever on the Senate version of the legislation. Had we had the opportunity to more thoroughly discuss our concerns, we believe the House would have rejected the Conference Report and requested a second committee of conference with the Senate to correct some glaring deficiencies in this legislation, given that session wasn’t scheduled to adjourn until the following day.
I believe the explanation of the 48 page bill and the 15 minutes or so we were given to review it caused some members to rely on misstatements about what the report did and did not do. Specifically, we were told that this bill, although imperfect, went farther to restrict gifts than the current law.
In fact, the Ethics Bill that was sent to the Governor would eliminate the current $250 annual gift limit in favor of an unlimited number of $100 gifts. So while it might appear that we are decreasing the gift limit form $250 to $100, the bill actually allows for no cap whatsoever on the total gift amount an individual could give an elected official, so long as they broke it up into $100 increments.
Here are other shortcomings with the bill that we have asked the Governor to address. The current proposal does not prohibit gift splitting to prevent a lobbyist from exceeding even the $100 gift limit by allocating the cost to multiple clients.
The General Assembly bill does not incorporate recommendations of the Governor’s ethics commission to empower the Ethics Council to audit, receive and investigate signed complaints, subpoena records, and refer for prosecution and to mandate the Ethics Council audit a minimum number of Statements of Economic Interest and Campaign Finance Reports on an annual basis.
In the rush to finish work on the conference report, the last bill of the session, a day early, the Bill leaves open a number of loopholes with respect to travel and attendance at events. There are no limits on travel to and from the General Assembly Session or other events that are related to a legislator’s official duties.
Not only that, but because such travel is exempted from the definition of a gift, it doesn’t even have to be reported. If a lobbyist wants to send me back and forth to Richmond by limo every week during session, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the law that requires me to refuse or even report such largess.
The new bill also removed a list of prohibited donors for General Assembly members. Current law prohibits all gifts from lobbyists, lobbyist’s principals, or individuals seeking a contract from the state. Now only gifts above the limit from lobbyists and lobbyist’s principals would be prohibited.
Finally, the bill fails to address the biggest loophole of all. Campaign finance funds should not be available for use for personal purposes. Monies donated for campaigns should be used for campaigns and not for members’ gasoline, mobile phones, meals, or utilities on their residence – especially such expenses during session when we are compensated for those items via a per diem and mileage reimbursement.
Virginians want and deserve a government they can trust. Public confidence in their local governments and the General Assembly has suffered after the trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife. I hope the Governor will consider making the changes outlined above and send us an ethics bill worthy of our great Commonwealth in time for the reconvened session on April 15.
Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at DelMSimon@house.virginia.gov