Legislators report travel, gifts

Published 12:45 am Sunday, February 2, 2014

Suffolk legislators accepted everything from airfare, health screenings and meals to tickets to golf tournaments, Redskins games and the circus from Virginia businesses and industries in 2013.

The freebies were reported by members of the General Assembly on annual disclosure forms and aggregated by the Virginia Public Access Project. Under Virginia law, General Assembly members can accept personal gifts in any amount, provided they disclose any valued at more than $50.

Legislators across the state accepted a total of more than $260,000 in gifts last year.

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Topping the list among Suffolk’s delegation was Delegate S. Chris Jones, who had the eighth-highest total among House of Delegates members. But he pointed out that most of his $5,537 total was for state business.

Dominion Virginia Power — the largest giver to all General Assembly members — paid for a $1,788 California trip where Jones and other legislators visited the Port of Long Beach, met with Silicon Valley corporations and visited Universal Studios and other studio executives to tout filming opportunities in Virginia.

Jones said the visit to the port, in particular, was “very topical for us at the Port of Virginia.” He has taken the lead on several port-related issues in recent years.

Another listing on Jones’ disclosure, a $1,213 entry for airfare and lodging paid for by the Southern Legislative Conference, was for a trip to Panama where he and other legislators from southern states met the director of the Panama Canal Authority and received a briefing on the effort to expand the canal. They also met with officials at the U.S. Embassy, who were there to discuss the economic impact of the expansion and the Free Trade Agreement between the two countries.

The expansion of the canal is set to have a huge impact on the Port of Virginia, because it will triple the size of the ships that can pass through the canal on their way to East Coast ports.

In addition, Jones accepted lodging worth $751 from the American Legislative Exchange Council at its task force meeting in Chicago.

“Travel is different from, I think, the way the public perceives a gift,” Jones said, noting he has taken issue with the Virginia Public Access Project on the way legislative trips are grouped with gifts. “I would consider (trips) a cost of doing the state’s business. I view gifts as something tangible that you receive.”

The rest of the gifts on Jones’ list included gift baskets, theater tickets, meals at the USS Gerald R. Ford christening and plaques for Legislator of the Year awards.

Delegate Matthew James ranked 13th among delegates with a total of $3,966 in gifts and other freebies. The total included $3,078 from Dominion for an Augusta, Ga., trip, a pair of Redskins tickets and a $146 dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse.

He also took tickets to a basketball game at the University of Virginia from Norfolk law firm Hunton & Williams, circus tickets from Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and various gift boxes and meals.

Delegate Lionell Spruill was ranked 38th among delegates with a total of $1,314 in meals, circus tickets, gift boxes and a health screening.

Delegate Rick Morris is not listed on the VPAP website. He said last year he prefers not to accept any gifts to avoid the appearance of being beholden to special interests.

Among Suffolk’s Senate delegation, John Miller leads the way, ranked 16th out of the 40 senators. He took $2,328 worth of gifts and meals, including $750 for LPGA tickets from the Economic Development Authority of James City County and M. Price Distributing Company. He also took a $1,000 honorarium from the University of Virginia for the Youth-Nex Conference. Gift boxes, meals at the Ford christening and an Old Dominion University sweatshirt rounded out his gifts.

Sen. John Cosgrove ranked 18th with a $2,218 total, including a $1,175 convention of the Virginia Auto Dealers Association at White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia, as well as various other dinners.

Sen. Tommy Norment ranked 25th with a $954 total, including $684 in airfare from Dominion, as well as a health screening and other baubles.

Sen. Louise Lucas was 27th with a total of $824, including circus tickets, meals and the same wellness screening accepted by most of Suffolk’s legislators, worth $219 from Health Diagnostic Laboratory Inc.

To view the full disclosures, visit www.vpap.org.