Legislators talk ethics reform

Published 10:05 pm Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Local legislators say they support proposals to tighten ethics regulations for government officials in Virginia.

Candidates and current elected officials have made the proposals in the wake of unfolding revelations that Gov. Bob McDonnell’s family accepted lavish gifts from Virginia-based nutrition company Star Scientific’s founder, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., while the family promoted products of the company.

But gifts to family members are technically exempt from reporting requirements, and some lawmakers have suggested that loophole is the first one that should be closed.

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“I think we definitely need to strengthen the reporting laws, especially as it relates to family members,” Senator-elect John Cosgrove (R-14) said Wednesday. “Certainly, at a minimum, we need to make sure that if family members or staff members are receiving any types of gifts or anything that could be considered a gift, that needs to be reported.”

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has proposed a raft of reforms, including expanding gift reporting requirements and limitations to spouses and dependent family members; banning the receipt of gifts in excess of $250 in aggregate per calendar year; requiring the disclosure of information like board memberships, income, investments and loans; and prohibiting the use of campaign funds for personal expenditures.

“Over the past few months, a series of unfortunate events have revealed to us several deficiencies in Virginia’s current ethics laws,” Bolling said in a press release Tuesday.

“As a result, the confidence of the people of Virginia in their state government has been eroded. In order to begin the process of restoring this confidence, we need to take immediate action to strengthen Virginia’s ethics laws and the proposals I am releasing today are designed to do just that.”

Another of Bolling’s proposals, echoed by candidates and legislators from both sides of the aisle, is the creation of a statewide ethics review commission to review ethics-related complaints against elected officials and issue advisory opinions on ethics-related issues.

Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has called upon the governor to convene a special session of the General Assembly to look at the ethics issues — an idea that has not found a lot of support.

“I’m not supportive of having a special session,” Cosgrove said Wednesday. “We’re only five months away from our regular session. There’s no reason why we have to make the taxpayers pay extra when we’re going to be there in five months.”

Delegate Rick Morris (R-64) said he supports strengthening the ethics laws but admits some will be hard to enforce.

“Anything we can do to make the process more transparent, I’m absolutely in favor of,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to police spouses and dependents. It comes down to trust that public officials will do the right thing and don’t abuse your position. If you run by that rule, everything should be fine.”