Simplicity regarding gifts

Published 9:17 pm Monday, February 3, 2014

Virginia Delegate Rick Morris, whose 64th District includes a portion of Suffolk, has what amounts to an unusual position regarding gifts to state legislators: He doesn’t accept them.

Morris is the only state legislator representing Suffolk not to be listed on the Virginia Public Access Project’s recent listing of legislators receiving gifts or trips valued at $50 or more. In light of the gift scandal that rocked the administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and resulted in indictments against McDonnell and his wife, Morris’ policy demonstrates a level of discretion to which more elected officials should aspire.

To be sure, most of the gifts legislators receive and report are innocuous in nature. The commonwealth’s rules for reporting freebies are pretty relaxed — they don’t require reporting of gifts to legislators’ family members by special interest groups, for instance — but they also can require, for example, notification of such unobjectionable things as plaques presented to legislators by organizations honoring their service. It’s unlikely that a delegate might feel beholden to, for example, the Chamber of Commerce, for receiving a $100 plaque from the organization.


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Similarly, not all free travel is objectionable. There’s a qualitative difference between, say, receiving a week’s vacation at Smith Mountain Lake from a company seeking to curry favor with state regulators — as happened in the McDonnell case — and a legislator having his expenses paid for a trip to explore legitimate economic development opportunities.

Suffolk’s Chris Jones, whose 76th House of Delegates District covers much of the city, disagrees with VPAP’s policy of including all free trips in its annual rundown of legislative freebies. In fact, one of the largest gifts on his list — $1,213 for a trip to Panama and back from the Southern Legislative Conference — was just the sort of trip folks in Suffolk might expect him to take.

Jones, who has been heavily involved in issues surrounding the Port of Virginia by virtue of the ports’ close proximity to Suffolk and by virtue of the city’s growing role as a location for warehousing and distribution companies, took a quick trip to the Panama Canal with other Southern legislators in September.

He was the only Virginia elected official to go on the trip, and the opportunity for him to learn about the future of shipping in light of the Panama Canal’s expansion was extremely important for Suffolk and the commonwealth. Virginia needs to do everything it can to be sure it grabs a goodly portion of the shipping traffic expected to arrive on the East Coast when the project is complete, and missing the chance to meet Panamanian officials in person would have been unfortunate, at best.

But there are plenty of marginal or questionable gifts included on the lists for Suffolk’s legislative delegation. Expensive dinners from high-powered Richmond lobbyists, gift boxes from organizations that would like to influence votes on important legislation and tickets to sporting events all represent the sorts of things that cause the average Virginian to wonder who’s pulling the strings in Richmond.

Most folks don’t expect their legislators to live the lives of cloistered monks, and Jones’ trip to Panama illustrates how the whole issue of gifts can become complicated. But with voter distrust of elected officials at an all-time high, Rick Morris’ vow of celibacy regarding freebies is a refreshing bit of simplicity.